Grand Portage Maine. Clarence Iverson survived the Vietnam War, so he’s not about to let a virus kill him when a vaccination might save his life.
Iverson, 74, said as he enjoyed a lunch of turkey and broth at the 2009 American Legion Post in the Sawtooth Mountains in this northern Minnesota community 6 miles from the Canadian border.
In Cook County, Minnesota’s arrowhead, many people share Iverson’s opinion. The county of 5,600 outback residents has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the state, with 78% of residents fully vaccinated, and the lowest rate of COVID cases. It was the last county in the state to report a death, and it wasn’t until last month, 21 months into the pandemic.
Residents say the boycott’s success is not difficult. There are a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important one is: Living in an unforgiving climate, with the nearest major city 100 miles away, people are accustomed to seeking out their luxuries.
You won’t go on a road trip without a first aid kit, but if you get into trouble, your neighbors will help you out.
And this has been Cook County’s response to COVID-19, they say: Community members look wisely for themselves and others. Although the county is flatly democratic, residents say COVID is a public health issue, not a political one.
“I think there’s really a great sense of community here. Everyone takes care of everyone here, because we have to,” said Bryan Gerrard, owner of Poplar Haus, an inn and restaurant on the Gunflint Trail.
“It seems irresponsible not to care about your friends and neighbours.”
With an increasingly variable omicron, Cook County is confident its community-centric approach will implement it, just as it has since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
“Our success is really due to our collaborative approach right from the start,” said Alison McIntyre, director of public health and human services for the county. “There was a feeling, ‘We’re all in this together.'”
Respect the elders
About 85% of the province’s economy is dependent on tourism. People travel from all over the Midwest—indeed, the nation—to experience the region’s natural charm. If the area is to gain a reputation as a coronavirus hot spot, say goodbye to tourists.
Residents got a taste of that last year, when businesses were shuttered statewide under a mandate from Governor Tim Walz.
“Early on, when businesses closed, people realized that this community couldn’t sustain itself that way,” said Linda Juric, executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce as well as the Cook County Tourism Office. “People saw it in their own self-interest to deal with COVID.”
County agencies, businesses and volunteers, along with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have worked together to build community awareness about health best practices since the start of the pandemic. When vaccines began to become widely available earlier this year, they shifted their focus to vaccination.
Jane Sorenson, the tribe’s health director, said the message was particularly well received in Grand Portage. More than 80% of the tribal members living in the county are vaccinated, including nearly 100% of the elderly. Sorenson said many young people were willing to follow in the footsteps of their elders through vaccination.
“We have a lot of multigenerational living,” Sorenson said. We want to protect our elders and keep them safe.”
Bill Myers, vice president of the tribal council, said the tribe set up vaccination clinics as soon as vaccines became available. The tribe hopes COVID preservation will help at the Grand Portage Inn and Casino, which has been hit by periodic border closures that have kept visitors away from its main customer base in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
In the Grand Marais, the largest community in the province, companies have taken various methods of covering and vaccinating. Many have signs asking visitors to wear masks, but unmasked shoppers were a frequent sight in stores last week.
At the popular Joynes department store, also known as Ben Franklin, owner Shani Goins said it was a tough time for her employees, some of whom had not been vaccinated. To reduce the risk of infection, they do not meet outside work and do not take breaks together during the day.
Joynes herself quit her nursing job at the local hospital, fearing she would bring COVID to the store and force the closure.
“We haven’t had any COVID incidents with our employees,” said Goins, who was wearing a mask on the store’s retail floor. “We managed to protect ourselves amid the influx of people [during tourist season]. “
COVID over the airwaves
Cook County has generally had the fewest weekly cases in the state. Even among other similarly sparsely populated Minnesota counties, the number of cases has been exceptionally low week after week. Since the pandemic began, Minnesota has generally shown a rate of 175 infections per 1,000 people. In Cook County, that number is 3.4 infections per 1,000, which means that the Cook County infection rate is about 52 times lower than the state rate.
Along with county health officials, Visit Cook County has been at the forefront of efforts to communicate public health messages. Last year, the group created a hugely popular marketing campaign urging residents to “keep the moose apart.” Campaign posters can be seen throughout the Grand Marais, and a T-shirt with its hooded logo and motif has sold nearly 1,000 copies.
Kjersti Vick, the organization’s director of marketing and public relations, said the light-hearted approach helped keep political tensions out of the mix as vaccines become available.
“We have paved the way for how we as a community can take steps to keep us, our families and our visitors safe,” she said. “And having a chance is one step into that, regardless of politics.”
Another major player in building community consensus is WTIP radio station. Since the pandemic began, the station has been hosting 30-minute interviews three times a week with doctors and public health officials. Joe Friedrich, the station’s news director, said the response was “unbelievable”.
“Members of the local community were talking about these things you see in the national news,” he said. “It made it less intimidating, and it gave the feeling that we’re all in this together.”
One important episode, he said, was when Dr. Kurt Farshmin of the South Mountain Clinic came to discuss vaccines and explain the science behind them.
“Dr. Farchmin—he is their physician, and their pediatrician,” Fredericks said. “He studied vaccinology. That’s what’s inside, here’s how it works and I highly recommend getting it. And it was all very natural.”
Another local touch has come with contact tracing. Cook is the only county in the state that does its own contact tracing; All others leave it to the state. Local volunteers make the tracing calls, and health officials believe they were most effective because contact with an infected person comes from someone in the community. Contact tracing volunteers also appear on WTIP, where they are presented so listeners know who they might contact in the event of an infection.
Taken together, it is a picture of a community working together to combat the greatest public health threat in a generation.
“I don’t know if there’s one thing that sets us apart,” said Grace Greniger, the county public health superintendent. “But there are so many things I’m really grateful for.”