Health officials across Rock County are reaching out to underserved and vulnerable populations to ensure everyone has access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Health and community organization officials say the local response to address demographic disparities regarding vaccination ultimately helped boost vaccinations, but they stressed work needs to continue to reach vulnerable individuals as uptake of immunizations continues to fall in the Stateline Area.
In Rock County, 48.6% of residents (79,456 people) have received at least one vaccine dose and 44% of residents (71,947 people) have completed vaccination as of Wednesday, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).
A breakdown of vaccinations by race shows 45.5% of people vaccinated in Rock County are White; 42.2% are Asian; 22.3% are American Indian and 22% are Black, DHS data shows. In terms of an ethnic breakdown, 46.5% of Rock County residents who received one dose identified as non-Hispanic while 30.1% identified as Hispanic. In 6.5% of all Rock County vaccinations, no race information was reported and in 3.4% of vaccinations a person’s race was recorded as “other.”
Rock County Health Department Communications Specialist Jessica Turner said the effort to improve vaccine distribution to vulnerable populations was ongoing.
“We have had success in reaching homebound populations and continuing to work with employers and community groups to get vulnerable populations access to the vaccine,” Turner said.
Turner cited data that showed 3% of Black residents in Rock County were fully vaccinated in January, with the figure jumping to 12% by the end of May. The same can be said for the Latino population in Rock County as 2% were fully vaccinated in January and by the end of May, the figure had jumped to 17%.
“This increase is promising, but we are still working on reducing the disparity we are seeing in vaccination rates by race,” Turner said. “We continue to see vaccination coverage disparities between White and Hispanic, Latino and African American populations, but these trends are encouraging.”
A closer look at the overall vaccine uptake by various age groups shows 85.1% of Rock County residents 65 and older have received at least one vaccination dose; 66.9% of all people between the ages of 55 and 64; 56.1% of people ages 45 to 54; 52.1% of all people between the ages of 35 and 44; 41.8% of all people between the ages 25 and 34; 41.7% of people 18 to 24; 35.6% of those 16 and 17 years old; and 26.3% of those between the ages of 12 and 15, DHS data shows.
In Rock County, a total of 16,410 cases and 182 deaths have been reported since the pandemic began in March of 2020. In Beloit, 5,528 cases have been reported as of June 23, as Janesville has reported a total of 7,024 cases.
“I think the reduction in COVID-19 spread that we are seeing in Rock County is due to the current level of vaccination that has occurred,” Turner said. “Anyone who isn’t vaccinated has a risk of contracting COVID-19 and potentially becoming severely ill, so that is always going to be a concern.”
In Beloit, 34% of all infections come from people between the ages of 15 and 34. An ethnicity breakdown of cases in Beloit shows that 28% were by Hispanic and Latino residents. In terms of race, 71% of Beloit cases were White; 14% listed as “other;” 13% Black and 1% for both American Indian and Asian residents, health department data shows.
In Janesville, 35% of all infections come from people between the ages of 15 and 34. An ethnicity breakdown of cases in Janesville shows that 11% were by Hispanic and Latino residents. In terms of race, 88% of Janesville cases were White; 5% listed as “other;” 4% Black and 2% for Asian residents, the health department reports.
Communities of color in Wisconsin and nationwide have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths since the pandemic began, public health data shows. Compared to White Wisconsin residents, Hispanic or Latino residents have 1.7 times greater case rates, Black residents have 2.1 times greater hospitalization rates, and American Indian residents have 1.5 times greater death rates, per DHS data.
The highest disparities of vaccination rates exist in Black and Hispanic communities, where Black, Hispanic and Latino residents are far less likely to be vaccinated compared to White residents, according to DHS demographic data.
Local health systems, clinics and municipalities stepped up to vaccinate marginalized individuals.
In Beloit, the Beloit Fire Department successfully applied for pandemic-related aid that allowed firefighters to offer vaccines to homebound individuals and residents in low-income neighborhoods where vaccine access and awareness was limited. Shortly after the Beloit fire vaccine program launched, other departments in the county made efforts to support targeted vaccinations in their respective communities.
“We chose to remove barriers to receiving the vaccine, including providing it to individuals who are unable to leave their homes and partnering with trusted non-profit and religious organizations to set up clinics directly in the neighborhoods,” said Beloit Strategic Communications Director Sarah Lock. “The health and wellness of our entire community remains a priority for the City of Beloit.”
Beloit Health System Vice President Sharon Cox said the health system was committed to working with community partners in providing the vaccine for all people in the Rock County area.
“BHS continues to advertise within the community and works with community leaders to share ongoing vaccination availability at BHS,” Cox said.
Organizations like Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties, HealthNet of Rock County and Beloit Area Community Health Center also worked together with various groups in Beloit and Janesville to provide vaccine access to residents hesitant to get the shot.
Through a coordinated effort, vaccine clinics were held at various locations—from churches to grocery stores—to reach those least likely to have access to the vaccine.
Community Action Executive Director Marc Perry said that coordinated effort helped reach people who had hesitations towards traditional health care institutions. Community Action took a targeted approach to reaching residents in Beloit’s Merrill and Hackett neighborhoods.
“We saw that grassroots organizing really helped us connect with more residents,” Perry said. “We moved away from the model that ‘If you build it they will come.’ We’ve always had that focus and the pandemic brought so many public and private groups together in working towards the same goal.”
Going forward, Perry said he hoped organizations would continue to work together in concert to address systemic issues of discrimination, gun violence and affordable housing inequities.
“We can address these issues with the same grassroots approach,” Perry said. “This coordinated effort continues to show that we have the ability to address major issues in our community when we pool our resources, both human and financial, towards a common goal. We have proven that ability to do that, but we need to sustain it.”
HealthNet CEO Ian Hedges said due to a lack of an organized federal response to vaccine distribution in December of 2020, it fell upon local organizations to reach people with limited access to health care and the vaccine.
“There was very much a breakdown among traditional health systems and groups of people that are marginalized in seeking the vaccine,” Hedges said. “People without health insurance are more likely to get discouraged by the system if they don’t get an answer right away. We make sure to prioritize individuals at various neighborhoods in Rock County to find people who needed our help the most.”
Beloit served as a model for targeted vaccine outreach in Rock County, highlighting the success of various clinics around the city.
“It really showed that municipalities had a major role to play in making connections with residents,” Hedges said. “Meeting people where they are, rather than forcing them to seek out the vaccine, was vital in reaching people.”
After hosting various clinics, Hedges said HealthNet’s approach to vaccine awareness and uptake shifted to become even more targeted as community ambassadors went to various Rock County cultural and business hubs to answer questions about the vaccine.
“We found that the first step for a lot of people was the most challenging in pursuing vaccinations,” Hedges said.
A representative for the Beloit Area Community Health Center could not immediately be reached for comment.
Future vaccine clinics in Beloit will be held from 1—3 p.m. on June 25 at Wesley CME Church, 1760 Shore Drive., with a second dose date to be given at the date of vaccination. From 10 a.m.—4 p.m. on July 17, a clinic will be held at Woodman’s Food Market, 1877 Madison Road. Walk-ups are welcome at both clinics.
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