COVID vaccinations work … when people are willing to get them, Kalamazoo Health officials say

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series. 

Many of the Kalamazoo County residents who wanted the COVID-19 vaccine have gotten it, health officials say.
 
And health care professionals are working to change the minds of those who haven’t.
 
“The people who are getting sick now are the people who are not getting vaccinated,” says James Rutherford, Health Officer with the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department. “The vaccine works. It’s effective. It’s keeping people from getting sick. It’s keeping people from dying. So that’s really what the bottom line is a year and a half later.”
 
But he says the rate of vaccinations has slowed over the last month to month and a half. And demand for the inoculations has dropped dramatically from a peak of 3,000 to 3,500 per clinic during the winter months and early spring. “Now we’re lucky to do 30 to 40 shots per clinic,” he says. 
 
Denise Crawford, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Family Health Center in Kalamazoo, says, “Kalamazoo as a whole remains on par with the total number of residents fully vaccinated to date (in other counties). But we need to continue our efforts to reach the 70 percent goal and ultimately obtain ‘Herd Immunity.’ This will allow us to truly decrease the overall impact of COVID-19 on our community.”
 
Herd Immunity is the name given to a situation in which the largest portion of a population (the herd) has become immune to an infectious disease, limiting the spread of it from person to person.
 
Crawford says that at mid-week last week (the week of July 12, 2021), there were 131,797 residents of Kalamazoo County who had been fully vaccinated for COVID 19. That represents 58 percent of the county population. Throughout the state, 4.5 million Michigan residents had been fully vaccinated (with two doses). That represents about 53 percent of the state’s 8.59 million residents.
 
“It certainly has slowed down,” says Rutherford. Through the end of last week, he estimated that the number of vaccinations throughout the county was a bit higher than data reported by Crawford, at about 61 percent.
 
“Comparatively, that’s very good; compared to some other counties,” Rutherford says. “That’s much higher than the state average. Sixty-one percent of our population has received at least one vaccination.” And the vaccine is readily available at pharmacies, family clinics, and doctors’ offices.
 
“We’ve struggled with certain age groups,” he says. “We struggled in the beginning particularly with persons of color. But I think we’ve done well as it relates to the partnerships with predominantly Black churches. Mt. Zion (Baptist Church) has been particularly helpful in terms of hosting several clinics for us. And early on, we did some round-table discussions and answered some questions.”
 
Many Blacks have a long-standing mistrust of the medical community as a result of historic and modern incidents in which they were mistreated or used as test subjects without their consent in medical research.
 
Rutherford says he hopes the community discussions helped alleviate some apprehensiveness about the vaccines and addressed some questions.
 
Asked what’s the latest on members of the African-American community becoming inoculated, Crawford was not able to cite numbers but says, “Members of the African-American community tend to mimic the rest of the county in terms of vaccination efforts. Those most interested have already received the vaccine.”
 
She says health officials are now experiencing significant vaccine hesitancy within the overall population and “new efforts have been designed to target the population with education, ease of access, and incentives.”
 
Rutherford says, “Black or White, we’ve struggled with certain age groups. Demographically, our lowest vaccinated age group is the 20- to 29-year-olds. It’s just difficult to reach that population.”
 
Asked why, he says, “I just think there’s that sentiment of invincibility, that I’m not going to get sick from it.”
 
Asked about the potential dangers of not being vaccinated, Crawford and Rutherford say all state and county officials remain concerned about the increase in variants and mutations associated with COVID-19.
 
“The advancement of these (variants) places us all at further risk and delays the overall goal of reestablishing our ‘new normal,’” Crawford says. “The results clearly emphasize the positive impact and protection from the vaccine.”
 
She says recent data from a local hospital system indicates it had 695 COVID-19 admissions in a 4-month period. Of those patients:

• 645 (92.8 percent) were people who were not vaccinated;
 
• 44 (6.6 percent) were partially vaccinated (they had a first dose);
 
• 6 (0.9%) were fully vaccinated;

• No fully vaccinated patients have died. 
 
“The vaccine is the best, the safest, and the only method we have to protect against COVID-19 deaths,” she says.
 
Speaking of the Delta Variant of COVID-19, Rutherford says, “Sixty percent of all of the new infections are attributed to the Delta Variant. And it’s really hitting populations that have low immunization rates.”
 
He explained that the Delta Variant isn’t necessarily more severe than the coronavirus that began sweeping the nation in March of 2020, but it’s easier to contract. “So that’s a primary concern,” he says.
 
“The other concern is back-to-school is about ready to kick in,” he says. “And I’m obviously wary of what that’s going to look like. We don’t really have the restrictions at the state level that we had last school year. So it’s going to be a real mixed variety of what schools are doing as it relates to (precautions). Some will be requiring a mask. Some won’t. Some will be more diligent about distancing and isolation and some of those other strategies that were very successful in the past. So that’s concerning as well.”
 
Through late last week, about 41 percent of the 12- to 16-year-olds in Kalamazoo County had been vaccinated, he says. That’s good but it leaves a lot of vulnerability in the schools, given there is not a vaccine yet available to help those under 12 years of age. He says he doesn’t expect Pfizer to petition for approval of a vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds until late September or early October.
 
He and Crawford have been vaccinated and each has stopped wearing masks in public. Rutherford is very comfortable doing that, saying, “If you’re vaccinated, you should be safe. If you’re not vaccinated, I would recommend continuing to wear a mask.”
 
Crawford says she has stopped wearing a mask in public in general. But, following state and federal guidelines, “I continue to wear my mask all day, every day at work in the Family Health Center, which is the mandate for all healthcare facilities.”
 
Asked what people don’t know about what is happening with the vaccination process, Crawford says, many don’t know they are eligible to win prize money in sweepstakes drawings from the state just for being vaccinated.
 
“Anyone that receives a vaccine between December 2020 and July 30, 2021, is eligible for the drawings as long as they register,” she says. “You DO NOT need another vaccine and you were not excluded for being responsible and vaccinating early. Simply sign up and register online.” 
 
Michigan residents who received a COVID-19 vaccination since last December may register to win prizes of up to $2 million at mishottowin.com.
 
Rutherford says he has been encouraged by the amount of coordination and volunteerism that has been involved in the fight against COVID in Kalamazoo County. He described it as awesome, involving thousands of volunteers who have made the effort successful.
 
“I think that at the end of the day, what people need to remember is that the vaccine is very effective,” he says. “It’s had very few side effects. When you look at how many millions and millions of doses have been given out, there have been very few side effects, particularly with the Pfizer and Moderna products. So, overall it’s safe for the age groups that it’s been approved within.”
 
Crawford adds that people have been resilient and, as a result of this pandemic, have learned the true value of community, collaboration, and meaningful partnerships.
 
“This pandemic has shown us the true value of commitment and love that we all have for mankind,” she says. “I have witnessed some of the greatest acts of kindness, compassion, and care for our community as a whole. Every industry and community partner has truly stepped forward in the name of the greater good asking how they can help and assist. We are a caring community and we will advance past the effects of this pandemic and emerge stronger, more aligned, and better equipped to handle challenges in a different way because of this experience.”
 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.