GRAND PORTAGE, MINN. — Clarence Everson survived the Vietnam War, so he's not about to let a virus kill him when a vaccination might save his life.
"I have a retirement ahead of me, so I figured I better get it," said Everson, 74, enjoying a lunch of turkey and gravy at American Legion Post 2009 in the Sawtooth Mountains of this northern Minnesota community 6 miles from the Canadian border.
In Cook County, the tip of Minnesota's arrowhead, a lot of people share Everson's view. The county of 5,600 far-flung residents has the state's highest COVID-19 vaccination rate, with 78% of residents fully vaccinated, and lowest rate of COVID cases. It was the last county in the state to record a death, and that didn't happen until last month, 21 months into the pandemic.
The county's success, residents say, isn't hard to explain. There are a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important is this: Living in an unforgiving climate, with the nearest major city 100 miles away, people are used to looking out for their own well-being.
You wouldn't set off on a wilderness trip without a first-aid kit, but if you did get into trouble, your neighbors would help you out.
And that's been Cook County's response to COVID-19, they say: community members prudently looking out for themselves and others. Though the county leans decidedly Democratic, residents say COVID is a public health issue, not a political one.
"I think there's really a huge sense of community up here. Everybody takes care of everybody up here, because we have to," said Bryan Gerrard, owner of the Poplar Haus, a lodge and restaurant on the Gunflint Trail.
"It seems wildly irresponsible not to take care of your friends and neighbors."
With the omicron variant on the rise, Cook County is trusting that its community-centered approach will carry it through, just as it has since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
"Our success has really been due to our collaborative approach from the get-go," said Alison McIntyre, the county's director of public health and human services. "There's been a sense of, 'We're all in this together.' "
Respecting the elders
About 85% of the county's economy is based on tourism. People travel from throughout the Midwest — indeed, the nation — to experience the area's natural charm. If the region were to get a reputation as a COVID hot spot, goodbye tourists.
Residents got a taste of that last year, when businesses statewide were closed under a mandate from Gov. Tim Walz.
"Early on, when the businesses were closed, people realized this community can't sustain itself like this," said Linda Jurek, executive director of the county's Chamber of Commerce as well as Visit Cook County, the tourism bureau. "People saw that it was in their self-interest to get a handle on COVID."
County agencies, businesses and volunteers, along with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have worked together to build community awareness about best health practices since the beginning of the pandemic. When vaccines started to become widely available earlier this year, they shifted their focus to vaccination.
That message was especially well received in the Grand Portage band, said Jenn Sorenson, the tribe's health director. More than 80% of the tribal members living in the county are vaccinated, including nearly 100% of the elders. Many younger people, Sorenson said, have been willing to follow the elders' lead by getting vaccinated.
"We have a lot of multigenerational living," Sorenson said. "We want to protect our elders and keep them safe."
The tribe held vaccination clinics as soon as vaccines became available, said Bill Myers, vice-chair of the tribal council. The tribe hopes that keeping COVID in check will help its Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, which has been harmed by periodic border closings that have kept away visitors from its prime customer base in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
In Grand Marais, the county's largest community, businesses have taken different approaches to masking and vaccination. Many have signs asking visitors to wear masks, but unmasked shoppers were a frequent sight in stores last week.
At the popular Joynes Department Store, also known as the Ben Franklin, owner Shanie Joynes said it's been a challenging time for her employees, some of whom aren't vaccinated. To keep down their risk of infection, they don't get together outside of work and don't even take breaks together during the day.
Joynes herself quit her nursing job at the local hospital, worried that she'd bring COVID to the store and force a shutdown.
"We have had zero COVID incidents with our staff," said Joynes, wearing a mask on the store's retail floor. "We were able to protect ourselves amid the influx of people [during tourist season]."
COVID over the airwaves
Cook County has generally had the lowest weekly case counts in the state. Even among other Minnesota counties with similarly low population density, the number of cases has been exceptionally low week after week. Since the pandemic began, Minnesota overall shows a rate of 175 infections per 1,000 people. In Cook County, that number is 3.4 infections per 1,000, meaning Cook County's rate is about 52 times lower than the state's.
Along with county health officials, Visit Cook County has been at the forefront of efforts to communicate public health messages. Last year, the group created a wildly popular marketing campaign urging residents to "keep one moose apart." Posters for the campaign can be seen all over Grand Marais, and a T-shirt with the slogan and its masked moose sold nearly 1,000 copies.
Kjersti Vick, the organization's marketing and public relations director, said the lighthearted approach helped keep political tensions out of the mix as vaccines became available.
"We set the stage for how we as a community are going to take steps to keep ourselves and our families and our visitors safe," she said. "And getting a shot is one step in that, regardless of politics."
Another key player in building community consensus has been radio station WTIP. Ever since the pandemic began, the station has been hosting 30-minute interviews three mornings a week with doctors and public health officials. The response has been "unbelievable," said Joe Friedrichs, the station's news director.
"It was local community members talking about these things you see on the national news," he said. "It made it less intimidating, gave a feeling that we're all in this together."
One important episode, he said, was when Dr. Kurt Farchmin of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic came on to discuss the vaccines and explain the science behind them.
"Dr. Farchmin — he's their doctor, he's their kids' doctor," Friedrichs said. "He went through the science of the vaccine. Here's what's in it, here's how it works and I'm recommending that you get it. And it was all very natural."
Another local touch has come with contact tracing. Cook is the only county in the state that handles its own contact tracing; all the others leave it to the state. County public health employees and staff at Grand Portage Health Services make the tracing calls, and officials believe they've been more effective because the call to an infected person is coming from someone in the community. The contact tracing workers also appear on WTIP, where they're introduced so listeners know who might be calling them in case of an infection.
Taken together, it's a portrait of a community working together to fight the greatest public health threat in a generation.
"I don't know if there's any one thing that sets us apart," said Grace Grinager, the county's public health supervisor. "But there are many things I'm really grateful for."