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In poorly vaccinated North Dakota, tale of east and west

September 4, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this April 3, 2020 file photo, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, where  he announced a pilot project to identify positive cases of COVID-19 earlier to slow the spread of Coronavirus in North Dakota. Burgum is pleading for citizens to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as North Dakota's hospitals struggle to handle the influx of patients infected with the highly contagious delta variant. Burgum brought together health professionals from around the state Wednesday in his first COVID-19 briefing in more than five months. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, file)
FILE - In this April 3, 2020 file photo, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, where he announced a pilot project to identify positive cases of COVID-19 earlier to slow the spread of Coronavirus in North Dakota. Burgum is pleading for citizens to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as North Dakota's hospitals struggle to handle the influx of patients infected with the highly contagious delta variant. Burgum brought together health professionals from around the state Wednesday in his first COVID-19 briefing in more than five months. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, file)
FILE - In this April 3, 2020 file photo, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, where he announced a pilot project to identify positive cases of COVID-19 earlier to slow the spread of Coronavirus in North Dakota. Burgum is pleading for citizens to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as North Dakota's hospitals struggle to handle the influx of patients infected with the highly contagious delta variant. Burgum brought together health professionals from around the state Wednesday in his first COVID-19 briefing in more than five months. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, file)

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s vaccination picture is defined by a vertical line that runs from the Canadian border to South Dakota via Jamestown. To the east, health officials say, the rates are fair to poor. To the west, they’re worse.

Twenty-two counties, all in the eastern third of the state and all of them connected, have vaccination rates of at least one dose between 50% and 60%. Of the remaining 31 counties, only two have rates above 50%, with many much lower than that, according to the state Department of Health.

“We clearly have more vaccine hesitancy in the western part of the state,” said Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford vice president and medical officer in Fargo. “I think there’s a much more frontier, independent nature and philosophy out there. Politics are part of it, but I think it’s more they don’t want to be told what to do. But really, I’m not sure I have a good answer for that.”

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That’s translating to higher incidence of COVID-19 in the western part of a state that the Centers for Disease and Prevention Control rates 45th in the country in percentage of fully vaccinated people.

The five counties with the highest number of cases per capita in the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers, are Emmons, Stark, McKenzie, Mountrail and Burleigh, all west of Jamestown. The vaccine coverage in Emmons is less than 38%, Stark is less than 37% and McKenzie is just over 33%.

There were just two staffed intensive care unit beds available in western North Dakota as of Thursday, according to the state’s hospital tracker, and none in Bismarck.

“The COVID hotspots are mirror images of vaccination status,” Griffin said.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum earlier this week called his first COVID-19 briefing in more than five months to promote vaccines and urge people to talk to medical professionals about it. When asked to explain the vaccination discrepancy, he said that while “people have and sometimes do have good reason to question the federal government,” the highly contagious delta variant of the virus needs to be taken seriously.

“I think that the politicization of every aspect of the pandemic from vaccines to masks has created what some are calling the death of the expert,” Burgum said. “Because of lack of trust in the news sources, people are believing their own sources and their own networks. I think it’s just the fact of the matter.”

Not all medical workers are on the same page. Griffin said the same east-west scenario has played out in his system and is similar for masks and testing.

Some health care workers have been among people attending recent protests against vaccines in Bismarck and Dickinson, in western North Dakota. More than 250 people gathered at the demonstration in Dickinson, carrying signs that read “If there’s a risk, there’s a choice” and “Freedom not force.” Some of them were wearing scrubs.

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Dr. Cary Ward, chief medical officer for CHI Health’s Midwest district, which includes the largest hospital system in western North Dakota, said that while he’s not discounting politics, a lot comes down to residents living in remote areas. Like North Dakota, higher vaccination rates are also being seen in the more populated areas of eastern Nebraska, he said.

“I think there’s a sense that because the population is less, people are more dispersed, and they hear about less cases and think they’re less likely to get it,” Ward said of the vaccine. “You know, the same thing happened with the Spanish flu. It started in the big cities and people warned, ‘Don’t think that you’re immune to this by being in small towns.’”