Traverse City News and Events

Grand Traverse County Eyes A New Strategy To Reach Herd Immunity

By Craig Manning | May 3, 2021

As of April 30, more than 61 percent of Grand Traverse County’s 16-and-over population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. With 70 percent touted widely as the threshold for achieving herd immunity, Grand Traverse County is getting close to “return to normal” numbers – at least on paper. But though another nine percent might not seem like far to go, Grand Traverse County Health Department (GTCHD) Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger says that last push is going to be the hardest, with demand for vaccines tapering off nationwide and GTCHD reaching the end of its existing queues for vaccine clinics.

“Our supply is finally outweighing our demand,” Hirschenberger tells The Ticker. “For two weeks in a row, we had to pass on our allocation of Pfizer because we had more than enough for the appointments and clinics that we had planned. Last week, we also sent out scheduling emails to our last group of people waiting in the queue for vaccination and opened it up for immediate scheduling. We are now working towards the group who have waited to get vaccinated but need it to be more convenient. We also know that some may have been waiting for the demand to slow down, so now we are able to meet the immediate demand and needs of anyone in the community 16 and older.”

So far, vaccination efforts in northern Michigan have largely required residents to visit a specific site, like a GTCHD clinic at the Hagerty Center or Rite Aid. GTCHD officials believe there are people who are willing to get the vaccine, but that their milder desire for a shot might not outweigh the inconvenience of scheduling an appointment or driving to a specific location to do so.

Emmy Schumacher, GTCHD public information officer, says there are probably people locally who “may not get [the vaccine] unless it's really convenient. If they happen to be somewhere it's being offered, they will get it, but will not make the effort to seek it out themselves.” She adds that “a multitude of personal reasons” could be acting as roadblocks for people in this particular group, from busy work schedules to transportation or child care challenges to “just not being as eager as those that had their hands raised from the get-go.”

The result, Hirschenberger says, is that the stage of fixed-location vaccine clinics is likely nearing its end. The next chapter of local vaccination efforts will take the form of outreach clinics – an approach that will present brand-new hurdles for local health departments and vaccine providers.

“For this next phase, we know we will have to bring the vaccine to the public rather than the public coming to us for it,” Hirschenberger explains. “It’s going to be another huge logistical lift, as it takes more manpower and hours to take the clinics on the road, but it will be well worth it. The throughput is also much less than what we have been seeing at the Hagerty Center, but we know it’s what we have to do in order to reach that 70 percent in our community.”

One approach, Hirschenberger says, will be to partner with “bigger employers, business groups, trade groups, churches, and any other group that is interested” – to set up mini vaccine clinics for their employees or members.  Another idea is to set up drive-through clinics or other “pop-up” vaccination sites. Any of these methods will be slower and less efficient than the mass vaccine clinic model that has so far defined COVID-19 inoculations in northern Michigan.

In other words, locals shouldn’t expect Grand Traverse County to hit the 70 percent mark right away.

“We do know that vaccination of the last 10-20 percent will be challenging in different ways, and will likely take just as long to accomplish [as the initial 60 percent],” Hirschenberger says.

Grand Traverse County isn’t the only place that will see this kind of shift. Hirschenberger notes that health departments, pharmacies, and physician offices around the state are all starting to experience slowdowns in demand and are looking at ways to be “creative and very strategic” about outreach.

The local area is slightly ahead of the curve, however: As of April 30, just over four million Michigan residents have received at least one dose of vaccine – 50 percent of the 16-and-over population. Last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a reopening plan that will stage the lifting of COVID restrictions to corresponding vaccine benchmarks. Restrictions will start to lift once the state hits 55 percent, with all restrictions – including mask mandates – lifting when Michigan crosses the 70 percent boundary. At 61.61 percent, Grand Traverse County has the second-highest vaccine rate in the state, as of April 30. The highest? Leelanau County, with 68.26 percent. Emmet County rounds out the top three, with 61.07 percent.

Despite the favorable vaccine rates here and the “almost there” nature of the 70 percent herd immunity benchmark – Grand Traverse County needs to vaccinate about 6,500 more people to cross that line – Hirschenberger says the work isn’t over, and won’t be even when a 70 percent vaccination rate is reached and surpassed.

“That is great metric,” she says of Grand Traverse County’s current vaccination rate. “It means we have a little less than 10 percent of our population left to vaccinate to achieve the lower threshold of ‘community immunity.’ Obviously, the higher the percentage we are able to achieve, the better the overall protection for all our population.”

As for vaccines doing their job, Hirschenberger says there is now ample local evidence to prove that point.

“We know the vaccines work based upon our review of COVID cases since the vaccine has been available,” she says. “Those in the age groups that have 70 percent coverage are a very small percentage of the cases.”

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