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COVID Vaccination Rates Are Slowing. Where Does That Leave McLean County In The Fall?

Delivering the vaccine
Emily Bollinger
McLean County added about 4,800 doses in the past week and about 3,600 fully-vaccinated residents. That’s a drop of nearly 68% from the April peak.

It took McLean County six months to get to 40% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Health officials say they're optimistic the rate will climb through the summer and fall, even as the number of residents getting doses has declined.

McLean County saw a peak in COVID vaccinations in mid-April. During that peak, the health department, drug stores, and medical providers doled out 15,000 doses and added nearly 9,200 fully-vaccinated residents in a single week.

The pace has slowed a lot. McLean County added about 4,800 doses in the past week and about 3,600 fully-vaccinated residents. That’s a drop of nearly 68% from the April peak.

But McLean County Health Department (MCHD) spokesperson Marianne Manko said any progress is good progress.

“McLean County is now the top in Region 2, as far as total population fully vaccinated. We're really proud of that," Manko said. "That's been really a difficult achievement for us, because we have a lot of students at ISU and we have a lot of people who work within the county who don't live in McLean County, who we’ve also vaccinated.”

Manko said looking at the percentage of fully-vaccinated residents doesn’t tell the full story. She said the numbers are better than they appear.

Vaccinations among children

"The population in McLean County tends to skew a little bit younger than other counties. So, we have a lot of people in our population who can't be vaccinated: our 12- to 15-year-olds can't possibly be fully vaccinated yet, because there hasn't been enough time since that approval process," Manko said.

The earliest kids in that age group can be considered fully vaccinated is next week—two weeks after their second dose. Manko said the vaccination rate will jump.

“We expect to see some fluctuation because every time you open eligibility up to a new group, you're going to see those numbers go up. We expect them to slowly go down right now," Manko said. "I would imagine, as we get closer to the school year starting in the fall, that we'll probably see a little boost in those numbers. And then, of course, when we open it up for anybody younger than 12, we expect to see a boost in those numbers as well."

Manko said the health department doesn’t have a clear picture of how many kids fall into that under 12 age group. Census data from 2019 suggests it could be about 25,000 kids, or 14.5% of the population.

There are other areas of low vaccination to address. Manko said the rates in rural areas is one, but little by little they are getting to those who want a shot.

Empty chair next to table in gymnasium
Dana Vollmer
The McLean County Health Department hosted a COVID vaccination clinic at Heyworth High School last week. MCHD administered less than a quarter of the doses set aside for the event.

"It's difficult to determine who's hesitant and who simply hasn't had the time or the opportunity to get in for a vaccine clinic and to be fully vaccinated," Manko said. "It does require effort. You've got to often take some time off work or rearrange your schedule. And then you have to 21 to 28 days later—if you get a two-dose vaccine— make sure that you're there for that time frame. And so that's difficult for busy people.”

The health department has had mixed results with mobile vaccine clinics in small towns like LeRoy, Colfax, and Lexington.

A clinic in Heyworth last week used less than a quarter of the vaccine doses set aside for it. They got about 20 people to roll up their sleeves and a couple were walk-ins by advertising in the “Families (and Lost Dogs) of Heyworth” Facebook group.

It was so slow National Guard members played basketball in the high school gym to pass time.

Manko said if the number of people looking for shots continues to drop, the county could change the way it administers vaccines.

“Those mass vaccination sites eventually will go by the wayside. Of course, there will probably be exceptions," Manko said. "We see it looking more like what will happen when you want to get your flu shot: you go to your local doctor's office, you go to the local pharmacy, and you know, it's more similar to that.”

Changing how we give vaccines

Some smaller-scale vaccination dispensers say that shift makes sense.

Stephanie Paxton is director of the Chestnut Family Health Center on Bloomington’s west side.

"We've adjusted our schedules and our availability, based on feedback that we've received from the community and patients," Paxton said. "Right now, we run vaccine clinics two days a week for about three to four hours per day. We really can vaccinate up to probably 60 or 70 people in one of those clinics. … On an average day, I would say we probably stay around 40.”

So far, Chestnut has administered about 1,400 COVID vaccine doses—less than 1% of the shots given in McLean County.

Chestnut advertises on social media and tries to get patients who come in for other appointments to sign up for the vaccine.

Paxton said the agency has had the most success partnering with employers or community agencies who can round up the people they serve, who they’re familiar and comfortable with.

“We've taken our mobile unit a couple of times off site to some of the agencies here in town that work with populations who have some difficulties with transportation or housing or some other things," Paxton said. "We are trying to take our vaccines to that population of people versus trying to get them to us.”

Another big under-vaccinated segment is young people. More than 80% of McLean County’s older adults (65+) are fully vaccinated. That rate falls closer to 50% for people in their 40s and 60s. But for people in their late teens and 20s, less than 30% are even partially vaccinated—despite making up the largest share of COVID infections.

The purple bar in this chart is the percentage of McLean County residents, by age range, that are considered fully vaccinated, while the green bar shows the percentage of the age range that have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and are on their way to being fully vaccinated as of May 18.
McLean County Health Department
The purple bar in this chart is the percentage of McLean County residents, by age range, that are considered fully vaccinated, while the green bar shows the percentage of the age range that have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and are on their way to being fully vaccinated as of May 18.

Illinois State University biomathematician Olcay Akman said missing out on this demographic could spell trouble in the fall.

“McLean County experienced a jump in new infections when students started moving in for the spring semester earlier this year, and that was under social distancing, face-covering policies," Akman said. "This fall, more students will move in once again from regions with varying preventive policies—some loose, some not.”

Akman said vaccination efforts will need to ramp up if officials want to reach herd immunity by the time students return.

Path to herd immunity

Herd immunity is generally understood to be 70-80% of the population fully vaccinated, he said. McLean County would need to add at least 3,000 fully-vaccinated residents per week to meet the bottom end of that range by Oct. 1.

That’s a heavy lift. Akman said it also assumes current vaccines are effective against coronavirus variants, that so-called breakthrough cases don’t become a bigger problem, and that booster shots won’t be needed between now and the fall.

But herd immunity isn’t black and white.

"We can’t really say, ‘If 80% of people are vaccinated, then everything will be normal again. But if 79% is, then things will be bad.’ Herd immunity is a nebulous concept. It's more like a sliding scale: more people getting fully vaccinated will result in more of us getting closer to living normal again," Akman said. "But if, say, only 65% is fully vaccinated, then this doesn't mean the end of the world for McLean County either.”

If McLean County adds 2,000 fully-vaccinated residents a week, it will bring the county to about 60% of the population fully vaccinated by the fall. Also, more than 10% of the population already contracted the coronavirus. Those people have some natural antibodies—although the CDC warns the immune response isn’t as strong as it is post-vaccination.

Akman said if vaccination rates drop even lower between now and the fall, down to 1,000 fully vaccinated residents per week, McLean County could be in trouble. That would be just half of the population fully vaccinated by around Oct. 1.

“We are afraid of observing another spike, and this is not just a speculation. India, Brazil, Italy, New Zealand—even New Zealand, which is the benchmark of the fight against COVID—they all observed spikes," Akman said. "It is very likely that we will observe such spikes if we can’t keep up with the vaccination rates and increase the unvaccinated population by inviting students back to campus.”

Akman said he’s confident McLean County —and the entire United States—can get nearly everyone vaccinated against COVID, adding it might just not be on the timeline people want to “return to normal."

He expects will happen within a year or two, when the COVID vaccine will be bundled with annual flu shots and other common vaccines like rubella, mumps, and measles.

"Somehow, the COVID vaccine is highly politicized. But if it is combined with a less controversial vaccines and more widely administered, I think will get even higher rates than 80%—and we (don't) want to experience the devastating effects of COVID we experienced in 2020 ever again," he said.

Akman said full Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization of the COVID-19 vaccines will improve immunity rates, though that’s likely several months away.

Meanwhile, he suggests policies requiring employees or students to become fully vaccinated will help. If agencies won’t do that, he said, they should reconsider policies on mask wearing and social distancing to ensure they align with what the public health situation actually is—not what we want it to be.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.