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In Conservative Dodge County, Skepticism And Some Support Of The COVID-19 Vaccine

Trump yard signs and flags are still frequently seen in Dodge County. Along this street in Neosho, there's also a sign for U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald.
Chuck Quirmbach
President Trump yard signs and flags are still frequently seen in Dodge County. Along this street in Neosho, there's also a sign for U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dodge County, about one hour northwest of Milwaukee, has the lowest percentage of COVID-19 vaccinations in the southeast quarter of Wisconsin. As of April 7, state figures indicated that just 27% of Dodge County residents have had at least one vaccination shot. That compares to 32% of Milwaukee County and 34% of people statewide.

WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach toured Dodge County the other day to hear what some people in the conservative county are saying about the vaccine.

Dodge County handed then-President Donald Trump one of his biggest county margins in Wisconsin last November. Sixty-five percent of the county voted for the Republican, while only 34% cast ballots for the Democratic winner President Joe Biden. Five months later, you can still see many Trump signs and flags along the highways.

Dodge is also the home of Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, another conservative, whose big, 90% white, 5th Congressional District pokes all the way into some Milwaukee County suburbs.

The Town Hall in Clyman, on Election Day, April 6.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Town Hall in Clyman, during the spring 2021 general election day on April 6.

Fitzgerald lives in the small town of Clyman, northeast of Watertown. So does Chuck Joyce. After voting Tuesday at the town hall, Joyce explained why he hasn't gotten the COVID-19 vaccine and doesn't intend to.

"I have enough information to confidently know that I will gain herd immunity by either exposure — as 900% of the other viruses have given us the opportunity to do —and to know that the vaccine is not going to be effective," he said.

Health officials have warned that the coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and other variants, can be much more harmful than other viruses, and that herd immunity may not be in place until about 80% of Wisconsin is vaccinated.

Outside the town hall in another Dodge County community, Ashippun, father and son dairy farmers Robert and Jake Guenther said they also don't plan to be vaccinated.

Jake, who's younger, said he's decided not to get a shot after looking at a variety of news articles.

"I kind of went through, and you kind of make your own opinion on the different stories you read, articles you read, and that's the opinion I came up with. Unfortunate part, nowadays you have to kinda , unfortunately, the stories you read, you have to determine what's fact and what's someone else's opinion, and that's where you come up with your own," said Jake Guenther.

The elder Guenther, Robert, said he's not sold on the science of the vaccine.

"That it's been tested long enough. You know, most vaccines take three to five years. This has been developed in nine months, and I have some skepticism that there might possibly be some side effects that we don't know about. So, I just tend to err on the side of caution," he said.

Health officials, including some in office near the end of the Trump administration when emergency use of the first vaccines was approved, say the risk of substantial side effects is extremely low.

Health policy analyst Jennifer Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation said polls show opposition to the vaccine is decreasing. But she told a recent Poynter Institute webinar that many Republicans and white evangelical Christians remain the most steadfast against getting a shot, mainly because of the side effects concern.

"That's actually good news because that says to me, you can influence that group. This is a learnable thing. But it does show effort needs to be put in to do that," said Kates.

The Village Hall in Hustisford on April 6.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Village Hall in Hustisford on April 6.

In the Dodge County village of Hustistford, self-described conservative and vaccine recipient Dennis Blankenship said he's given up try to sell some of his friends on getting a shot.

Former President Donald Trump and Wisconsin House member Scott Fitzgerald, in a photo from Fitzgerald's campaign website.
Courtesy of Scott Fitzgerald
Former President Donald Trump and Wisconsin House member Scott Fitzgerald, in a photo from Fitzgerald's campaign website.

"I haven't found in my life that there's a whole lot of ways you're going to convince anybody, particularly the group of people I associate with, they're not changing their minds," he said.

Blankenship said it would be just wasting his time, and risk building up hostility, to become a vaccine advocate.

But another Hustisford resident and vaccine recipient, Terry Williamson said he thinks conservative political leaders could swing more people to getting a shot.

"This is a very right-wing area. So, for it to get higher rates, then, some of the Republican politicians need to step up to the plate and try to understand this as a health issue and a people issue, not as a political issue," he said.

Last week, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Congressman Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to its inquiry about the vaccine. On Wednesday, WUWM also reached out to the recently-elected first-termer, but we've not heard back.

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