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The Illinois county with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate faces steep challenges getting shots in arms: 'We could very easily slip backward'

Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Even though Mary Helen Wissinger has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since the spring, she avoids indoor dining and going inside public spaces when they appear crowded or the parking lot seems full.

The 67-year-old volunteer church secretary is still social distancing to some degree, choosing curbside pickup at big-box stores and takeout at restaurants.

“I just try to be overly careful,” she said. “Even though I’ve been vaccinated and I should be OK.”

Wissinger lives in Cairo, the southernmost city in Illinois and the seat of the county with the lowest coronavirus vaccination rate in the state.

Roughly 15% of the population of Alexander County is fully vaccinated, far lower than the near 50% statewide, according to Illinois Department of Public Health statistics.

Wissinger said the low uptake isn’t due to lack of access or availability: Vaccine has been abundant at mass vaccination sites and clinics for months. She received her shots in town and believes most of her friends, relatives and members of her small parish at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cairo have also been immunized.


“You can walk in and get one,” she said. “I would have gotten mine earlier if it had been available. But that’s just me, that’s not everybody, obviously.”

As the nation battles a surge in COVID cases in predominantly unvaccinated parts of the country, some public health experts worry about sections of Illinois with particularly low vaccination rates, which are at risk for outbreaks and pose a challenge to herd immunity.

While Alexander County’s vaccination numbers are strikingly low, other counties in southern and western swaths of the Illinois also fall well below the state average.

In Fayette, Hamilton, Henderson, Pope and Pulaski counties, fewer than a quarter of people are fully vaccinated. In about two dozen counties statewide, less than a third of all residents have been immunized.


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