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To Ensure A Lasting Celebration, Get Vaccinated

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Our celebration of the nation’s 245th birthday felt special this year in that we reclaimed so much of what we missed last year. Gathering with friends and family, and hugging all those we have missed, is without a doubt the biggest highlight. We gathered to enjoy parades, fireworks displays, and community celebrations.

We also celebrated our sense of freedom from the oppressive COVID-19 pandemic.

For the most part, it appears that COVID-19 is a disease of the past for the residents of western Minnesota. Countryside Public Health’s five counties, which include Swift, Chippewa, Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine, saw just 18 COVID-19 cases in June. That is the lowest monthly total since the first cases were diagnosed in the area in May 2020. Swift County saw just six cases in June while Stevens County saw one and Pope County only four.

Yet, as we celebrate our freedom from the COVID-19 virus, we constantly hear nagging reminders that it’s too early to assume victory. These cautionary words have us looking over our shoulder waiting for the bad news. Has some variant broken through the immunity provided by the vaccines, or is it now deadly to younger people?

We hear a lot about rural areas trailing urban areas in vaccinations rates, leaving our residents more susceptible to the virus. We hear of hospitals in rural counties in the South and the central U.S. seeing greater hospitalization rates than at any time since it first began spreading in the late winter of 2020.

Overall, rural Minnesota trails the Twin Cities metropolitan area in vaccinations, reflecting the political split between rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, throughout the nation. So far, we’ve not seen a spike in rural COVID-19 cases, though public health leaders are concerned about the rise of new variants and what the fall might mean for us as we head indoors.

Based on Minnesota Department of Health vaccination statistics, western Minnesota counties do lag behind the state average in all age categories. While we are close in the age groups over 65, we trail significantly in the younger age groups.

Vaccination Rates by Age as of July 1
Age     Swift     Pope     Stevens    Chip    Minn
12-15     13%    14%     19%     11%     30%
16-17     30%     29%     35%     25%     45%
18-49     42%     35%     43%     42%     54%
50-64     62%     60%     61%     61%     69%
65+     83%     82%     84%     84%     89%
Total     47%     46%     45% 4    6%     52%
However, suburban areas are falling behind in their vaccination rates, so don’t just single out rural counties.

“There’s a lot of, let’s call it judgment of rural communities and a lot of blame that’s being placed on them … for vaccinations,” Mark Holmes, a professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, says.

It’s not just the outlying metropolitan counties in the South that are behind, so are some counties around cities like Minneapolis, he points out.

Wherever these pockets of low vaccination rates exist, they provide an onramp for the more infectious COVID-19 variants, like the Delta and Delta-plus, to infect people. “If we’ve learned anything from 18 months of this pandemic, we’ve learned that it can spread from any place to any place. We’re far too mobile a society,” Keith Mueller, director of the University of Iowa’s Rural Policy Research Institute, told National Public Radio.

Who isn’t getting vaccinated?

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, about 20% of Americans say they “definitely” won’t get vaccinated. When you add in the people who are not vaccinated because of hesitancy or indifference about getting the shot, the percentage of unvaccinated people 18 and older in the U.S. is closer to 33%.

Multiple studies point to young people who don’t think they need it since its mostly the elderly at risk of severe illness and death. The studies also show that people living in poverty, lacking insurance, or those with disabilities are lagging in getting vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that “the most resistance among Republicans, white Evangelical Christians, essential workers in fields other than health care, and adults under 50.” Nearly 30% of Republicans say they won’t get vaccinated compared to 5% of Democrats.

 Rural America is heavily Republican, putting it most at risk to new variants due to the political affiliation of its residents. Among those who definitely will not get the vaccine, the vast majority, 69%, are White.

Considering COVID-19 cases are plummeting in Minnesota, some will question why we are even bringing this topic up again.

Nearly 90% of Minnesotans most vulnerable to the disease have been vaccinated. Over the past 18 months, perhaps as many as 30% to 40% percent of Minnesotans have contracted the disease and gained immunity. Many who have had it also have been vaccinated.

We worry because the virus is apolitical and an equal opportunity agent of disease and death. We know that one factor overwhelming dictates who will become infected, who will be hospitalized, and who will die if infected – the vaccine. Based on current statistics, 99% of those dying in the U.S. from COVID-19 are people who have not been vaccinated.

We worry because the new Delta variants are 40 to 60% more infectious, according to CDC. They may also cause more severe illness and more deaths. So far, at least 160 variants have been identified. Most don’t make the virus more infectious or more virulent, but a few do.

Each of these “super” variants is also evolving, taking another step closer to perhaps infecting younger people or finding a way around the immunity provided the vaccine or having had COVID-19. The only way to stop the evolution of the variants is to stop the disease with a high percentage of people vaccinated.

Increasing the percentage of those vaccinated in our rural counties will ensure that we are armed against new variants, stop the introduction of new ones, and continue celebrating our freedom from the virus.

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