Spectrum Health panel discusses vaccine rollout in rural West Michigan

Spectrum Health communications specialist Jennifer Pascua leads a panel discussion with Dr. Jennifer Morse, of District Health Department No. 10; Jamie Kober and Trisha Taylor, of Riveridge Produce; Newaygo County Commissioner Ken De Laat; and Dr. Kelley Brinsky, of Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital, not pictured. (Screenshot)

Spectrum Health communications specialist Jennifer Pascua leads a panel discussion with Dr. Jennifer Morse, of District Health Department No. 10; Jamie Kober and Trisha Taylor, of Riveridge Produce; Newaygo County Commissioner Ken De Laat; and Dr. Kelley Brinsky, of Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital, not pictured. (Screenshot)

WEST CENTRAL MICHIGAN — With a third COVID-19 vaccine approved and additional groups becoming eligible, how are health officials working to vaccinate individuals in rural Michigan?

Spectrum Health communications specialist Jennifer Pascua, formerly of WZZM 13 News, joined with local health officials and community leaders Friday morning to discuss the unique challenges of reaching out and communicating with residents of rural West Central Michigan.

“Usually, the first conversation that I have had with these patients is the teasing out the misinformation,” said Dr. Kelley Brinski, a physician and section chief at Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital. “They have really looked to me to guide them about what is reality and what isn’t, to explain what these vaccines are, what they can do, so they can make an informed decision.”

Newaygo County Commissioner Ken De Laat also combats misinformation, not just in his capacity as a government official, but also in his day job as publisher of the online news site Near North Now, which covers the Newaygo County area.

“We had feedback on one of our articles from someone who was an anti-vaxxer,” De Laat said. “(He) talked about how this is just like chicken pox. I mean you have to get everybody infected and then you know, it’ll be less deadly and things will be fine.

“Well this person got a lot of action on social media, and it wasn’t a physician, wasn’t a healthcare educator, wasn’t an immunologist. It was a roofer. I mean, and they still got a lot of positive feedback for it.”

De Laat pointed to another challenge in rural areas.

“There’s a profound lack of trust in institutions, quite often,” he said. “and trying to break through that, we try to give people as much information as we can, accurate information.”

The political makeup of rural communities also affects acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines.

A recent EPIC-MRA poll of 600 Michiganders, showed that 90% of Democrats and 80% of Independents said they would get the vaccine. Republicans were split — 46% said they would get the vaccine, and 47% said they would not, according to the results published in the Detroit Free Press.

“The concern there is that Newaygo county is around two-thirds, if not 70% Republican,” De Laat said.

Brinksi agreed. “About two-thirds of our patient populations falls into that Republican demographic and are less likely to even consider the vaccination. ... I think each one of these people is a direct conversation.”

As an example, she told a story of a patient in his 70s who identified as part of a militia group.

“He said, ‘I want to get the vaccine, but I don’t want my friends to judge me,’ and I think that’s where a lot of of these patients are is that they want to but there’s such a stigma in their circle about it.”


One industry common to rural areas is agriculture. Joining the panel were two managers from Riveridge Produce in Sparta. The company works with eight packaging facilities to market about 50% of Michigan apples grown by more than 200 growers.

And while employees have always followed safety protocols, other issues have emerged.

“It’s a diverse group of people and diverse working conditions,” said Jamie Kober, enhancement director at Riveridge Produce. “That’s probably one of the challenges that we’ve had.”

“Some of these (growing) seasons for these commodities are shorter and so we’ll have this worker population kind of moving around the area,” he continued, “and so for them to be in the same place to come back and get the shot, you know, 28 days later, can be difficult in some situations.”

Other challenges include lack of transportation to vaccine clinics and food workers being unprepared for eligibility, which began Monday.

“There’s folks that are 18 years old that are now eligible to get the vaccine, and perhaps maybe their parents or grandparents haven’t been able to get one yet. So maybe there’s some hesitancy there ... like, you know, they’re moving ahead of the line,” said Trisha Taylor, marketing manager at Riveridge Produce. “But it’s important for everyone to do so, so that we can keep providing the food, that we need to keep the food supply moving.”


As the conversation wound down, the panel members offered ways they are overcoming the unique challenges of serving rural populations.

To solve the lack of transportation issue, Riveridge Produce has been working with community partners to bring the vaccine to the workplace.

“It doesn’t get much easier,” Kober said.

Beginning Monday, DHD No. 10 will open eligibility in its northern counties to anyone aged 50 and older, regardless of health.

“We have gotten to where we’re having some difficulty filling our slots because we have worked through our 65-plus crowd quite well,” Morse said.

De Laat said Newaygo County’s Commission on Aging has helped sign up their clientele for the vaccine waiting list while they do their Meals on Wheels deliveries.

“We have large areas without broadband access in our county, and so for some of those people, that’s the only outside kind of contact that they have,” he said.

Everyone agreed that the most effective way to serve rural communities is through a grassroots effort and word of mouth.

“Telling our own stories and knowing those who have been vaccinated and seeing it slowly start to make a difference, this is what it’s going to make the biggest impact here,” Kober said.

“We can’t have individual conversations with every single person,” Morse said, “but you know people do have concerns, specific concerns, make sure to ask them. And if you’re coming up against a hesitant individual, to argue with them usually makes them dig in deeper. So spreading the positive saying, you know, ‘I got my vaccine,’ usually helps more than arguing.”

“I think it’s almost like the ripple effect, right?” Brinski said. “The more people that share their experience, the more it’ll kind of go on and on. That’s my anticipation — the big grassroots campaign.”

For more information on the COVID-19 vaccine, visit spectrumhealth.org/vaccine. To view all of Spectrum Health’s weekly discussion videos, visit facebook.com/SHHealthierCommunities.