Welcome to Todd County, where just 34% of people are vaccinated

By: - July 14, 2021 7:00 am

An Amish buggy drives through Todd County in July 2021. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

TODD COUNTY — Behind the deli counter of the Mennonite-run Cherry Grove Market near Browerville, Arla Martin, a 23-year-old Mennonite, wore a long blue, plaid dress, and no mask, even though she hasn’t gotten the vaccine but has had COVID-19.

She’s among the 60% of eligible Todd County residents (12 and up) who haven’t gotten vaccinated, and she doesn’t plan to. She said none of her church community — about 20 families — has gotten vaccinated.

“We don’t see any reason in it,” she said. “At this point, I mean, because we all feel like we’ve got it (COVID-19) and it wasn’t a bad experience for us.”

In Todd County, just 34% of all people are vaccinated — the county was the least vaccinated county in the state until the numbers were recently adjusted, moving it up to second to last, behind nearby Benton County.

More than 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths in June were in unvaccinated people, and new cases are surging in 45 states, as the more contagious delta variant spreads. Missouri, where only about 40% of people are vaccinated, is grappling with an outbreak that prompted the feds to send in “surge teams.”

Martin said church members can get vaccinated if they want; there’s no dictate from her father, who is the bishop of the church. She said the only reason they would consider getting the vaccine is if it were required in order to travel, since they go to Uganda on missions about twice a year.

“Do you think they’ll start requiring it?” she asked.

Katherine Mackedanz, community health manager at Todd County Health and Human Services, is well aware her county lags behind the rest of the state in getting vaccinated, saying it’s disappointing, but not surprising, given the county’s political and religious makeup. There are a lot of new immigrants, Amish and Mennonites and politically conservative people.

The county is traditionally reluctant when it comes to vaccines, with about half its seniors getting the flu vaccine, compared to about 66% nationally.

They held a mass vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds, made interpreters available, sent a mobile vaccination bus to four communities and sent an informational mailing to every household in the county. Seven providers and three pharmacies offer the vaccine in the county, she said, so it’s not an access issue.

“We have done everything we can think of,” Mackedanz said.

Arla Martin works at the Mennonite-run Cherry Grove Market near Browerville. She said no one in her community plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

Of the nearly 25,000 people who live in the county, about 8,200 residents have been vaccinated, according to state statistics. The county has an estimated 2,000 Amish residents, who traditionally don’t get vaccinated, Mackedanz said. County workers have talked to the bishops to try to convince them to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“They’re very respectful, but they believe that their health is in the Lord’s hands,” Mackedanz said. “We work closely with that population once a month. We do a clinic with them. And we’re lucky if we get a tetanus shot occasionally.”

She said the Mennonites probably would be more likely to get vaccinated than the Amish, since they’re more mainstream. But she was wrong, according to Martin, who said none of the church members have been vaccinated.

“At this point, we don’t feel threatened by it,” Martin said.

‘There was a lot of scare tactics’

Politics is also playing a role in the county’s lagging vaccination numbers.

“Todd County, you know, as we all know, politics weighs heavily into this,” Mackedanz said.

Studies have shown Republicans are much more reluctant to get vaccinated, and nearly 74% of the county voted for Trump in November. (She’s from nearby Stearns County, where 60% voted for Trump.)

“We wish the vaccine wasn’t politicized, but it is and our county is a very red county,” Mackedanz said. “Right now, there’s a level of bringing the horse to drink, and if they don’t want to drink, you know, you guide them to the water. … And there’s also just, you know, the COVID restrictions were difficult, and I think living in a rural area, you don’t like to be treated like the metro.”

Meanwhile, in northeast Minnesota, Cook County — population 5,400 — is the most vaccinated county in the state, with 73% of its total population vaccinated, including a whopping 98% of those aged 65 and up (an age group that comprises about one-third its population). It’s also the only Minnesota county with no recorded COVID-19 deaths.

“We’ve had one case in the last two weeks,” Cook County Public Health Coordinator Grace Grinager said.

The community worked together, with her office partnering with the tribal health clinic and about 200 volunteers signing up to help do everything from screen people to sanitize chairs.

The county doesn’t have an intensive care unit, so the nearest ventilator is in Duluth.

“I think that’s part of why people took it seriously,” Grinager said.

Asked how big a role she thinks politics played in the county’s success — President Joe Biden carried the state by a nearly 34% margin — she demurred.

“I would say that we are maybe purple,” Grinager said. “So we’ve tried to, from a messaging standpoint, just really push back against the idea that this is political, and just emphasize that these are universal precautions. This is an equal opportunity virus that really politics should have nothing to do with.”

In Todd County, Mackedanz said some people don’t want to be seen as going along with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, noting an anti-Walz “Rocks and Cows” movement in the area.

Kathy Roske, at the store she works at in Grey Eagle, said she was surprised her county was among the least vaccinated in the state and already got her shot. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

That’s clear at Chris’s Country Store in Grey Eagle — in southeast Todd County — which is part antique store, part thrift shop, part flower shop, part grocery store, and a place where old-timers can sit at one of three tables and drink coffee.

To keep a country store going in a town of about 300 — when people could drive 45 miles to St. Cloud’s big box stores — you have to diversify. Owner Chris Browen lives in the back of the store and works seven days a week, sometimes forgoing sleep when there’s a funeral that needs food and flowers.

She didn’t wear a mask, her family never “shuttered” and her church stayed open throughout the pandemic (for which she said the church was reported to the sheriff). She did put in a Plexiglass barrier at the cash register, but she won’t be getting vaccinated and wasn’t wearing a mask last week.

Browen said quite a few people she knows are choosing not to get the vaccine. Some people — like her — don’t believe COVID-19 was as bad as scientists said, according to the media. Most of the people who contracted the virus didn’t get that sick, and those who died were elderly, she said.

“There was a lot of scare tactics,” she said. “And I don’t like that.”

Seven people in her family caught the virus, but nobody got very sick. One was exhausted for three days. Her friend was consigned to a couch for three weeks. Her brother lost his sense of taste and smell for a while.

She thinks hospitals got kickbacks for diagnosing people with the virus (they didn’t), says “they’re (she doesn’t say whom) looking into” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to Trump and Biden, and the media spouts too many opinions. As a sign behind her register says, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, God is already there.”

The conversation quickly turns political, as Browen complains about people trying to “erase history” by pulling down statues (mostly Confederate statutes).

“The educated people are vaccinated,” she said at one point, out of the blue. “Maybe you can call us the rednecks out here; people just didn’t buy into the government control.”

Browen’s employee, Kathy Roske — who leaves the farm to work at the store one day a week so she can “see people” — sees it differently. She got COVID-19, along with most of her family, including a brother who ended up in the intensive care unit because “he couldn’t get no air.” She also lost a good friend to the virus.

She was losing hair and had diarrhea, but never suspected the virus until her doctor suggested she get tested.

She got vaccinated and was surprised to hear her county was among the least vaccinated. She wondered whether people in the meat packing plants near Long Prairie might be responsible for the low vaccination rate.

“I actually shouldn’t say this, but I think there’s a lot of Mexicans that work there and I don’t know how they feel about it,” she said.

Silvia Ambriz Montanez sits on a bench in a park in Long Prairie with seven of her grandkids. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

Down the road in Long Prairie, the community she’s referring to, Silvia Ambriz Montanez sat on a bench in a park with seven of her grandkids, who helped translate our conversation because she doesn’t speak English.

She moved to Minnesota from Mexico 20 years ago for work; she worked at the Jennie-O turkey processing plant in Melrose for 15 years and her husband still works in a meat packing plant.

He is vaccinated but she hasn’t gotten vaccinated yet, due to high blood pressure, but plans to.

Her husband got COVID-19, and then she did, too.

She has seven siblings in Long Prairie — two work at Jennie-O and two at another meat processing plant.

Mackedanz, the community health manager, said a lot of new immigrants come to work in the meat packing plants and can be hesitant to get vaccinated and give out health information due to concerns about their immigration status.

But the packing plants have pretty high vaccination rates — half of Long Prairie Packing’s employees are vaccinated, she said, which is good for a young, healthy demographic like its workers. The plant had an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020.

She said people just want to move on.

“We’re not twisting arms here,” Mackedanz said. “We’re doing everything we can to promote the vaccine, but we also understand our population.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.