Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
The hesitancy of some Calhoun County residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine is an issue that health department officials and community leaders continue to grapple with even as confirmed cases are on the rise throughout the county and the state.
Vaccination clinics that took place this past Saturday, March 20 in Battle Creek and Albion specifically for residents living in the 10 most vulnerable census tracts in Battle Creek, Springfield, and Albion fell short of the goal Eric Pessell, Public Health Officer with Calhoun County, had in mind. He says that 300 people were vaccinated at the Albion clinic and 400 people received vaccines at the Battle Creek clinic.
“We were shooting for 1,000 in Battle Creek, but there’s still a lot of hesitancy out there,” Pessell says.
These clinics were the culmination of a 10-day effort that involved volunteers with various community organizations with badge credentials going door-to-door in the identified census tracts representing highest risk communities to sign up individuals 60 years of age and older and their neighbors for slots at the two clinics, Pessell says. He did not identify the specific census tracts.
Eric Pessell, Calhoun County Public Health Officer
The clinics were part of an initiative known as the Michigan Community Outreach Pilot Program. The Calhoun County Public Health Department
applied for and received 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine through a vaccine grant for the two clinics, Pessell says.
“The doses that remained after the clinics (were completed) were distributed to pharmacies or health centers in the census tracts for their use,” he says.
Despite the lower-than-hoped-for vaccination numbers, Pessell says these clinics created valuable data on where education efforts need to be focused and where the most vaccine hesitancy exists.
Volunteers who assisted with getting people signed up for the most recent clinics included members of the Battle Creek Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Carey Whitfield, President of the local NAACP, says in early February his organization also was involved in micro-clinics that took place at Washington Heights United Methodist Church and the Maranatha Church in Albion. A total of 400 people were vaccinated between those two clinics, Whitfield says.
Vaccination clinics took place March 20 in various Calhoun County locations.
To date, Pessell says there have been three micro-clinics completed in Battle Creek and two in Albion.
“We will continue to work with our community partners to educate the community and provide more micro-clinics in the future that will be focused on these census tracts,” he says.
Numbers on the rise, new cause for concern
On Wednesday, according to Pessell, there were a total of 600 new cases within a 14-day period reported in Calhoun County. This increase in the number of confirmed cases has led to an uptick in hospitalizations at local hospitals, Pessell says.
“Last week we were trending at about 10 people hospitalized with COVID-19, now it’s trending at 25,” Pessell says. “We are doing some work on this. We’re not sure why these hospitalizations are increasing.”
Trends in Calhoun County are mirroring what's happening at the state level. Michigan reported over 3,000 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday for the third time this month. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
reported 3,579 new COVID-19 illnesses on Tuesday for a total of 633,191. That is the second-highest increase in cases covering a single day in March.
The good news for Calhoun County, Pessell says, is that the age 70 and older population is the lowest among age groups with reported new cases, but this is tempered with a surge in new cases among younger populations and the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan and the county.
As of Wednesday, there were a total of 44 confirmed cases and 21 suspected cases of the variant in Calhoun County. Pessell says the variant is impacting younger age groups at a higher rate than older age groups with 16 confirmed cases among the 0-19 and 20-29 age groups which accounted for 36.4 percent of total confirmed cases. This was followed closely by the 30-39 age group which had 11 confirmed cases which accounted for 25 percent of total confirmed cases.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy for Health with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
“We definitely have the variant in the county and it appears it could be more easily transmitted,” Pessell says.
Michigan has the second-highest number of cases of the United Kingdom variant of COVID-19 in the nation, behind Florida, with 908 confirmed cases of B.1.1.7 through Monday, according to an article in The Guardian
, a British newspaper. But, this does not mean it’s the dominant strain of the virus in the state, says Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy for Health with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“The discovery of this variant in Michigan is concerning, but not unexpected,” Khaldun says in a statement on the MDHHS website.
The United Kingdom (UK) identified a variant called B.1.1.7 with a large number of mutations in the fall of 2020.
An article on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website
says, “This variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. In January 2021, experts in the UK reported that this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. It has since been detected in many countries around the world. This variant was first detected in the US at the end of December 2020.”
Pessell says, “What concerns me is what happened in Europe with this variant’s spread, which means it must be easier to transmit.”
Given the presence of the variant in Michigan and the increase in reported cases, Khaldun says, “We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible. We continue to urge Michiganders to follow a research-based approach by wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often, and making a plan to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once it is their turn.”
People are taking their shot
Whitfield says he thinks the willingness of local leaders and influencers in minority communities to publicly advocate for people to get vaccinated has led to an increase in the number of African Americans who are getting the vaccine.
But, he says there is still a need for more education especially considering the different messages coming at people from different directions.
Although the Burmese community was not part of the census tract areas that were the focus of Saturday’s clinic, Tha Par, Executive Director of Battle Creek’s Burma Center, says, “When you are talking about any marginalized group, it takes a lot more time and effort to do outreach and education. Did those residents have that education so that when the opportunity came to get the vaccine, they could make a well-informed decision to get vaccinated?
“The bigger issue that we as a society are struggling with is that there is an anti-vaccine group that continues to grow,” Par says.
Whitfield of the NAACP says he doesn’t think that people are as concerned with COVID-19 as they have been.
“That bothers people like myself,” he says. In September, Whitfield was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was hospitalized for a month undergoing treatment for the virus. He continues to deal with lingering health issues caused by his battle with COVID-19.
“It bothers me to know that the messaging many people are receiving is that is it’s slowing down and it’s OK now and if the community and businesses are opening up everything must be going reasonably well. People are getting much more lax than they should be and that makes me nervous.”
The NAACP needs to say, “That we’re not done yet and we need to continue to be vigilant and make sure we get the shots,” Whitfield says.
Par says there is a great deal of interest from members of the local Burmese community about getting vaccinated. The organization offered a clinic on Feb. 27 with Bronson Battle Creek Hospital and Grace Health at the Burma Center, open to any former Burmese resident who met the criteria. She says another clinic will take place on Saturday, March 27 to administer second doses.
She says those who are reluctant to attend have questions and concerns, including whether or not they should get vaccinated if they already had COVID and if side effects they had from their first shot will be as bad or worse with the second shot.
“That’s follow-up education that we have to do as an organization and explain what is the cost and benefit,” Par says.
Pessell says the county continues to follow guidance from state officials in terms of eligibility for the vaccinations. He says about 60 percent of the county’s total vaccine doses continue to be given to specific age groups and those individuals identified as high risk with the remaining 40 percent going to clinics and frontline workers.
The county’s vaccine allocation increased to 2,340 doses this week from 1,900 the previous week based on various criteria including the CDC's Social Vulnerability Index
(SVI) which refers to the potential negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health. Such stresses include natural or human-caused disasters or disease outbreaks.
Pessell says he is expecting to see the county’s vaccine allocation increases continue. By mid-April the county is planning to establish an outdoor, drive-thru vaccination site that will accommodate larger numbers of people.
“We haven’t decided on a location yet,” Pessell says. “It will have to be a place that a lot of cars can get into. We will have people giving vaccinations on both sides of a car.”
As of March 24, just under 30,000 Calhoun County residents have received their first dose of either the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, or Pfizer vaccine, and 16,250 who have completed the two-dose vaccination process, Pessell says. A new online registration system is giving county residents another option to get signed up while giving the Calhoun County Public Health Department additional ways to prioritize those on that list.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, Pessell says there’s been a faction that has continued to ignore guidelines designed to protect them and others from getting the virus.
“Nobody wants this to be over quicker than I do,” he says. “It’s serious and we have to continue to follow those simple protocols. It’s not going to be forever, but for at least the next several months we need to do it and get it over with. Let’s get through this and hopefully by the end of summer we’re all going to feel comfortable.”