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Vaccination Slowdown: How One Tribe is Trying to Motivate Members to Get the COVID Vaccine

Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

On a Thursday morning at the Lake of the Torches Casino Resort in Lac du Flambeau, dozens of people sit at flashing slot machines and game tables.

Down the hall from the humming game room, another table is set up, but this one is not for games.

Instead, it's stocked with piles of paperwork and pens. Two volunteers sit behind the table, ready to register anyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccine.

But unlike the game room just a few feet away, their table doesn’t have many visitors.

“It’s a little slow, little slow,” said Amy Poupart, one of the volunteers stationed at the check-in table. She’s been working at clinics like this since January.

“We’ve had hundreds in a day,” she said. “Now, every week it’s been less and less.”

Lac du Flambeau’s Peter Christensen Health Center has about 300 COVID vaccines to distribute at this clinic.

Halfway through, only 13 people have come.

Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

That’s a much different picture than just a few weeks ago, when people flocked to clinics like this, waiting in lines that stretched out the door to get the shot.

The Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is one of several tribes in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan to open its vaccine clinics to the public before the state expanded eligibility requirements.

The tribe receives their allotted doses from Indian Health Services, which mobilized quickly to distribute COVID vaccines.

After vaccinating their elders, healthcare workers, teachers and frontline workers, Lac du Flambeau tribal leaders opened vaccine eligibility to every member of their tribe.

Then, they opened their clinics to everyone in the general public – about three weeks before the state of Wisconsin did the same.

“Our numbers were dropping off, so we decided to open up to the public because we heard people were having trouble getting off waiting lists,” Dave Poupart, the tribe’s community health department supervisor, said.

People like the tribe’s president, John Johnson, saw this as a sign of support for the entire area, and hoped it would bring a sooner end to the pandemic.

“I think a lot of people are scared off the reservation, and I think a lot of people are happy we’re doing this because it shows that we’re one community, not just the reservation,” Johnson said.

At first, these clinics were popular.

Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

But more recently, the number of people coming – especially people younger than 40 – has started to dwindle.

“It’s tapering off,” Dave Poupart said. “We’re not getting a lot of people come in. We usually have extra [vaccine doses], so we’re not running out.”

Poupart can ask Indian Health Services for as many vaccines as the tribe can distribute.

But even though he estimates just between 30 and 40 percent of tribal members are fully vaccinated, he’s stopped asking for more because their freezers are still stocked with leftover doses from previous clinics.

The struggle to motivate people to get vaccinated isn’t isolated to this reservation.

The number of people receiving vaccine doses across most counties in Northern Wisconsin has dropped each week since the beginning of April.

In Florence County, for example, just over 300 people received a dose of COVID vaccine the first week of the month.

Last week, only 70 people got a shot, even though less than 40 percent of the county’s population has been vaccinated.

This is a trend mirrored in nearly every county in our region, and in rural areas across the country.

Because of this trend, tribal leaders like Councilwoman Brittany Allen are speaking up to encourage more people to get vaccinated.

“We have to take the initiative to help stop the spread,” Allen said. “We have to protect our people. We have to protect one another against this deadly virus that could wipe out a good majority of our people.”

Allen said she was skeptical about getting the vaccine at first since it was new and developed quickly.

However, after doing some research, she decided to get the vaccine to protect the people she loves.

“We have a little over 4,000 people in our tribe and I couldn’t imagine losing one,” she said. “For us to lose 560,000 [people] in the United States, that’s a very scary high number. I couldn’t imagine losing one person because our community is so tightly knit. Our whole community would feel the death of one person.”

Allen wants to lead by example.

She hopes her example will lead people to the COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

The Lac du Flambeau tribe is hosting a walk-in Moderna Vaccine Clinic at the Lake of the Torches Convention Center Friday, April 30th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Appointments to receive the second dose will be scheduled at that time.

The tribe is also collecting a list of names of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 interested in receiving the Pfizer Vaccine. More information is available on their Facebook page.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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