Rural Minnesota counties lag in vaccination rates

A woman poses for a photo.
Pine County, Minn., community health services administrator Samantha Lo tracks the spread of COVID-19 there. “We’re worried about obviously people still getting sick and going to the hospital and dying. You can see these really disastrous consequences happen.”
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The rate at which your neighbors have been vaccinated against COVID-19 depends a lot on where you live in Minnesota. 

In large urban counties, the vaccination rate is high — topping 75 percent of those age 16 and older with at least one dose in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, for example.

It’s a different picture in many rural counties. Pine County in east-central Minnesota between the Twin Cities and Duluth is one of nearly a dozen where most people so far have chosen not to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Map of Minnesota COVID-19 eligible vaccination rate
Share of Minnesota adults with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, by county
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

“I just don’t think me at 39 should be worried about it so much,” said Pine City resident Jaime Schreur. “I’m not sure really what the hype is, to be honest. I don’t know anybody personally that has been affected with it so I’m not seeing what apparently everybody else is.”

At Sauser's Hardware in downtown Pine City, there’s no longer evidence of the pandemic’s threat.

“We have no restrictions in place anymore,” said Michael Sauser, who owns the business along with his wife Mary Ellen. “We took down our spit shields, and we’re pretty much back to normal now.” 

Two people smiling.
Michael Sauser and his wife, Mary Ellen Sauser, own the store Sauser's Hardware in downtown Pine City.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

But the public health conditions are nowhere near back to normal in Pine County and many other places where large percentages of people have chosen not to be vaccinated.

“All I can say is, if you’re not vaccinated, this virus will find you,” said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Localized surges will continue as the virus and its variants spread among the unvaccinated, Osterholm said.

“When you look at those who aren’t vaccinated, you know this pandemic is no different for them now than it has been in the last year-and-a-half,” Osterholm said. “They are at risk of becoming infected, and at such a point that they do, they surely will in fact experience serious illnesses — and some of them will die.”

At a recent wedding reception in Pine County, a dozen unvaccinated people contracted COVID-19, said Pine County community health services administrator Samantha Lo. 

“We’re worried about obviously people still getting sick and going to the hospital and dying,” Lo said “You can see these really disastrous consequences happen.”

Dr. Peter Henry is the chief medical officer at Essentia Health, which operates a hospital and other facilities in Pine County.

“I would be dishonest in saying I’m not frustrated, but I’m also trying to understand people’s resistance to getting the vaccine,” said Henry, underscoring that it’s not just the unvaccinated who face consequences.

“The more people that we have to care for with acute illness relative to COVID also impacts that kind of catching up we have to do relative to the everyday medical care that has been postponed,” Henry said.

Henry said he hopes vaccine skeptics will change their minds as they see friends and neighbors doing well after their vaccinations, while unvaccinated people continue to get sick and sometimes die.

Health officials say flipping even just one vaccine skeptic can snowball, and that when someone is aware that a family member, a friend or a coworker has chosen to be vaccinated, they too might reconsider.

Lo said she and her colleagues in community health services are focused on outreach.

“Parades, fairs, grocery stores, gas stations,” Lo said. “Wherever they just happen to be already.”

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