By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — While the Evers administration celebrates Wisconsin’s rise from near the bottom to the top of the national COVID-19 vaccine administration list, rural Wisconsin is being left behind.
“Our rollout is similar to many rural counties. It’s been slow,” Leah Eckstein, Adams County Public Health Officer, told Empower Wisconsin.
The central Wisconsin county of just over 20,000 residents has received a minimal amount of doses since the Department of Health Services’ vaccine distribution rollout launched in late December.
Beyond the slow rate of distribution, Adams is one of the oldest counties in Wisconsin. More than 30 percent of its population is 65 or older — the demographic with the highest COVID-19 death rate and health risks.
People ages 65 and older are part of the Evers administration’s Phase 1 of COVID-19 vaccinations. Others eligible in the first round include frontline health care workers, residents and staff in skilled nursing facilities, and police, firefighters and correctional staff. Wisconsin’s vaccine eligibility universe will be expanded on Monday, when Phase IB opens.
Eckstein said Adams County residents, particularly the elderly, are frustrated but for the most part are understanding.
Adams County isn’t alone.
Not one dose
State Sen. Patrick Testin sent a letter last week to DHS Secretary-Designee Karen Timberlake expressing his concerns about rural counties in his 24th Senate District receiving significantly less COVID-19 vaccine doses than more densely populated areas like Madison and Dane County.
Testin said his office recently was contacted by one of the county health department directors in his district who shared her frustrations and concerns about the lack of vaccines available from DHS. The Stevens Point Republican’s staff quickly learned all six county health departments in the 24th District were encountering the same problems.
“One county health department even said that they had not received any of the COVID vaccines from the state yet,” Testin wrote. “When we asked if they were given the courtesy of a notification when to expect them from the DHS, the health department said they had ‘no idea’ how soon they could expect doses.”
Another county, Testin wrote, reported having a waiting list of 3,500 eligible Phase I residents, most of whom are 65 and older. He noted Adams County, which recently requested 1,000 doses but received one-tenth of that request. Eckstein told Empower Wisconsin her health department has the infrastructure and staff in place to administer vaccinations at a much higher rate.
“While rural areas of the state have a smaller population, they comprise higher percentage of seniors, the very population most at risk for serious health issues from the coronavirus,” Testin said. That compares to 15.3 percent in Dane County, which has a 65-and-older population of about 14 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The average COVID vaccine rate of the population of the six counties Testin represents is 12.33, the senator wrote.
As of Saturday, DHS reported that nearly 800,000 Wisconsin residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine since December. Nearly 338,000 had received both doses required in the two-shot sequence.
The vaccination rate for Wisconsinites 65 and over stood at 46 percent last week.
Forced to travel
In Crawford County, vaccinators are getting shut out, too.
County Health Officer Cynthia Riniker said it’s been slow going. The health department has been lucky to get 100 doses per week. She said about 3,000 of the southwest Wisconsin county’s 16,000 residents are 65 or older.
“We are currently sitting with over 700 in that group on our waiting list,” Riniker said. Seniors have been forced to travel adjoining counties to get the shot.
Crawford County has but three vaccination sites — the hospital in Prairie du Chien, the local Gundersen Health Systems clinic, and Hartig Drug. It was recently informed Walgreens in Prairie du Chien will begin offering COVID-19 shots soon.
What’s often lost in the vaccine distribution discussion is that small counties like Adams County don’t have Walgreens or CVS pharmacies, the chains working with the federal government to administer vaccines to the must vulnerable populations.
“The other issue is transportation. That’s a continual barrier for us,” Eckstein, Adams County’s health director said. “Even if we had a Walgreens or CVS getting people there would be a problem, too.”
Testin wants answers.
“As an elected representative, I am respectfully but urgently petitioning that the needs of my constituents not take a back seat,” he wrote to the DHS chief. “Please let me know what my staff and I can do to expedite and improve this process to ensure the residents who I represent in central rural Wisconsin are not left vulnerable.”