There’s a stark divide between Michigan’s most- and least-vaccinated counties

St. Joseph County among bottom 11 counties in Michigan for full vaccination rates

By Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance

It has been almost a year since COVID-19 vaccines rolled out, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer setting a goal of getting 70% of the state’s nearly 10 million residents 16 year and older vaccinated.

Since then, the faster-spreading delta variant has wreaked havoc on the nation, and the Covid ActNow data tracker reported the Great Lakes State has the highest COVID-19 risk level in the nation.

With thousands of new cases per day and hospitals once again becoming overburdened with COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, the state now sits at an average vaccination rate of 55% for residents 5 years and older as more children under 16 receive their recently approved vaccines.

When counting just an initial dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, that number bumps up to 60.7%, according to the state. About 70.8% of the population 16 years and older have received their first dose.

But while certain Michigan counties are approaching or even passing the 70% fully vaccinated mark, others are falling short.

Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious diseases research at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, told the Advance this month that vaccination rates need to be in the 90% range in order to reach true herd immunity — particularly given the more infectious nature of the Delta variant.

The Michigan Advance examined the top and bottom 10 counties for full vaccination rates, meaning one dose of the Johnson & Johnson shot or two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

Leading the pack is Leelanau County in northern Michigan with 72.96%.

After that, rates fall to the low 60s with Washtenaw County (65.17), Grand Traverse (64.91%), Oakland (64.6%), Emmet (64%), Mackinac (63.59), Wayne (61.7%), Benzie (61.68%), Charlevoix (61.46%), and Alger (61.06%).

As for the bottom 11 — as St. Joseph and Monroe counties are tied with just over 43% — the state’s least-vaccinated county is Cass County in Southwest Michigan.

Following Cass County (35.88%) are Hillsdale (38.06%), Osceola (40.73%), Mecosta (40.91%), Montcalm (41.85%), Branch (41.98%), Sanilac (41.98%), Oscoda (42.04%), Luce (43.03%), Monroe (43.33%) and St. Joseph (43.33%).

Chelsea Wuth, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said in an email Wednesday that the department and providers are trying to get vaccines to as many people as possible through mobile vaccine units, vaccine clinics at community testing sites, providing vaccines at local events and frequently visited locations, and more.

“More than 70% of Michiganders ages 16 and older have received their first dose of the safe and effective COVID-19 and we thank them for getting vaccinated to protect themselves and others, but we have further progress to make,” Wuth said.

“As more individuals are vaccinated, it is less likely that the virus will circulate and mutate, avoiding the development of more transmissible and vaccine-resistant variants in the future.”

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden is the associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University and the director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions.

Furr-Holden said Wednesday that much of the discrepancy at this point can be attributed to politics and a vast contrast in vaccine messaging spread by each party.

“The power of the trusted, credible messengers is unparalleled during this pandemic,” she said. “So to have the politicians in those [undervaccinated] areas come forward and call for people to be vaccinated and endorse vaccinations and get vaccinated themselves, I think will make a bigger difference than many of the other efforts that we’re trying to enact.”

While in office, former President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the severity of the pandemic, gave credence to conspiracy theories about vaccines and repeated unsubstantiated anti-vaxxer claims. 

Republican leadership in Michigan and throughout the country soon followed suit. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has consistently fought against Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions and  took her to court for it in 2020, resisted a mask mandate for the state Senate from the start, opposed a statewide mask mandate, and promoted conspiracy theories in place of public health protocols.

Shirkey himself became ill with COVID-19 in December 2020 and has not received a vaccine, instead claiming that he and others previously infected with the virus have “natural immunity.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone — including those who have recovered from COVID-19 — receive a vaccination against the virus.

A study published in October found that both fully vaccinated individuals and those previously infected have a lower risk of subsequent infection for at least six months. But the completion of a vaccine series leads to better and more consistent antibody responses, the study found.

“Substantial immunologic evidence and a growing body of epidemiologic evidence indicate that vaccination after infection significantly enhances protection and further reduces risk of reinfection,” the CDC writes.

Research is still being conducted on the duration of immunity after being vaccinated, and even less is known about immunity after contracting and recovering from COVID-19.

The CDC recently began recommending booster shots for those over 18 and six months from their last COVID-19 dose, as well.

According to the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, 90% of Democrats say they have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine compared to 69% of independents and 61% of Republicans.

As of last month, KFF also reports that nearly four in 10 fully vaccinated Republicans said they are unlikely to receive a booster shot when it’s recommended to them.

As of Wednesday, the state of Michigan reports that a total of 1,276,264 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 23,595 have died from the virus — an additional 17,003 cases and 280 deaths since Monday, with an average of 8,502 new confirmed cases per day.

The Advance also compared the top 10 most- and least-vaccinated counties with how each voted in the 2020 presidential election.

For the top 10, four voted for Biden (Leelanau, Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne) with margins from 52%-72.7%, while six (Grand Traverse, Emmet, Mackinac, Benzie, Charlevoix and Alger) all voted for Trump with margins of 50.6%-61.4%.

The bottom 11 were much more homogenous. All of Michigan’s least-vaccinated counties voted for Trump in 2020, with margins from 63% to 73.2%.

“That does not surprise me,” Furr-Holden said. “That really does not surprise me.

“Now we’re talking about politics over public health,” she said “You’ve got the people who are just heels dug in on misinformation.  …  You got a smaller group of people who say, you know, well, I just don’t trust it.”

But for a large percentage of those people, refusing a vaccine is an “act of political freedom,” Furr-Holden said.

To get over that chasm, Furr-Holden says she believes the best tool is information from the figures people trust.

“People need to see the shift in the people that they trust and that they rely on. Because those people have also sent them a sort of subliminal [message] to not get vaccinated. So they now need to be proactive in encouraging them to get vaccinated,” she said.

“Now, we need our elected officials in those places to step forward and to do the right thing and to set their political agenda to the side and speak to the hearts and the minds of their constituents and ask them to get vaccinated. That’s what’s needed.”

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