Challenges of Vaccine Rollout in Rural Wisconsin
February 2, 2021
President Biden has pledged to meet the historic challenge of the pandemic with the full power of the federal government. In the White House’s Fact Sheet: President-elect Biden Outlines COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, Biden promises to work closely with local communities to mobilize resources for everyone.
“…We will not leave anyone behind,” the fact sheet states. “Communities across the country are counting on it.”
That includes the people in rural Wisconsin, where about a fifth of the state’s population live. Vaccination rollout there presents challenges to keeping that promise.
Rural areas of the state already faced health care challenges. Despite the large percentage of population that makes up rural Wisconsin, only 10 percent of state physicians practice there. A 2018 report by the Wisconsin Council on Medical Education and Workforce forecasted that an aging physician population and difficulty attracting young health professionals to rural communities would lead to a shortage or primary care physicians. Wisconsin ranks near the bottom among other states in supporting public health.
According to an article published by Wisconsin Public Radio (“Wisconsin’s Rural Vaccine Rollout Stymied by Thin Staffing, Long Drives,” Jan. 26, 2021), rural Wisconsin has to deal with limited resources, storage of the vaccine, and staffing issues. That’s on the medical side of vaccination. In addition, transportation to and from vaccination sites and an aging demographic on the patient side make distributing the COVID-19 vaccine that much harder.
In rural counties such as Bayfield, county health directors worry about stretching staff too thin. Bayfield County Health Director Sara Wartmann told WPR that she has a staff of just 13, who must put in long hours to administer doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. So far, they have targeted county health care workers and first responders.
“My staff [at first] were really resilient and gung-ho—lots of energy,” Wartmann told WPR. “But when we realized it wasn’t going to be over in two months, it was really hard to keep going, keep that energy level up.”
Some rural counties face a different issue: they have not yet ordered any of either of the vaccines. That’s true in both Menominee and Shawano counties, which has just two health department nurses. The counties don’t have the resources or staff to oversee a vaccination rollout, Health Officer Terri Harmala told WPR, and were overwhelmed just by having to trace contacts and test for COVID-19. She’s hoping to hire another nurse and partner with larger area health care systems.
In more populated counties, pharmacy chains help vaccinate nursing home residents in federal partnership with the CDC. Some rural counties in Wisconsin are not home to any pharmacy chains, such as Walgreens or CVS, or have retail pharmacies that aren’t part of this federal vaccination partnership.
Northern Wisconsin rural residents in particular often drive 30 minutes to an hour for medical appointments, according to Wartmann. Public transportation is limited. To help bridge this gap for rural Wisconsinites, Governor Tony Evers launched a mobile vaccination effort on January 19 that will bring the vaccines to those needing them. The effort is a collaboration between the Wisconsin National Guard, the Wisconsin DHS, and local and tribal health agencies. At rollout, nine mobile units were deployed.
“It has always been our goal to get folks vaccinated as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible,” said Gov. Evers. “These mobile vaccination teams are going to help us do just that by continuing to expand vaccine distribution across our state, leveraging partnerships and our best resources to meet folks where they are in their own communities.”