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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

One plane, one island and 50 vaccines, a year after COVID struck Michigan

BOIS BLANC ISLAND—Morning sun burned off the icy mist from Lake Huron early Tuesday, as the rumble of a single-engine Piper Cherokee approached, punctuated by the rubber squeak of touchdown.

 

Inside the plane, a blue tote held 85 doses of hope manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.

Juanita Westcott, 78, who helped her late husband run a sawmill on the island, was among those scheduled, after long months of battling kidney failure and trying to avoid the deadly virus.

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She had been quarantined for months, allowing only her daughter, 59-year-old Christine Hasbrouck, and an occasional hospice nurse, to visit. Westcott smiled Tuesday. “I’ve been so looking forward to this,” she said.

“We both have,” her daughter said.

Juanita Westcott, 78, was relieved to receive a COVID vaccine after a year of worry. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)

One year after a state lab confirmed the first new coronavirus case in Michigan, Tuesday brought life-saving doses to one of the most remote patches of Michigan. This time of year, the only way on and off the island is by plane. No boats. No ice bridge. 

Forty-seven of the island’s 70 or so year-round residents signed up for shots, with a few walk-ins expected at a make-shift clinic in a fire hall.  

It turns out the single-dose J & J vaccine is ideal for places like Bois Blanc. It’s less finicky than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that require ultra-cold freezer storage. And there’s no need to fly back to give a second dose.

Ultimately, 50 men and women would work their way through the fire hall — temperatures taken, consent given, sleeves rolled up. 

The mood was ebullient. Even on this sparsely populated strip of land in the Straits of Mackinac, some residents hadn’t seen each other for months. They talked of weather, wildlife, an odd black squirrel, several deer nearby, and dwindling winter supplies.

At 88, Victor Babcock is the island’s oldest resident and its former road commissioner. Mostly deaf, he spoke through his caregiver, calling the vaccine good news. It will allow his sons to visit again from downstate.  

Matt Northrop was happy to see anybody at all, having spent the last three months talking to his two house dogs. 

An island turns inward 

Bois Blanc, pronounced bob-low in the Michigan tradition of butchering names of French origin, has been lucky. Just two of its year-round and seasonal residents contracted COVID. Both survived, including an older man who was ferried to the mainland this past fall.

Those who live here fulltime are used to isolation, said resident Diane Akright, 60, the local clerk. 

Groceries are flown or ferried in. Cell service is thread-bare. A single teacher in a one-room schoolhouse educates the entire K-8 population — just five students this most unusual school year.

Because of a sickness and the quarantine of several kids, just one child was in school Tuesday — 5-year-old Ryler Schlund. He was practicing his ABCs with the teacher, as her one-eyed Chihuahua mix, Georgie, napped in a nearby blanket.

Ryler Schlund, 5, was the only student Tuesday at Bois Blanc Island’s one-room schoolhouse. He practiced the alphabet with teacher Sherry Corbette as a Chihuahua mix, Georgie, chilled. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)

In most summers, the island’s population can explode 10-fold with seasonal residents and visitors. But last summer, every visitor carried the potential to introduce COVID to a community woefully unresourced to fight it.

The normally welcoming island put out a public statement last spring, asking visitors to stay away for the time-being.

“There was this level of fear,” Akright said. “We said, ‘Please don’t come here unless you live here. There’s nothing here for you right now.’” 

In the best of times, the island’s single medical clinic is staffed just a few hours a month by a nurse practitioner from the mainland. She hasn’t been here since the pandemic, said Fire Chief Brandon Schlund, who with his family-owned business, Island Contractors, is charged with maintaining the island’s gravel roads.

The only way to come and go this time a year is by air.

The ice bridge to Cheboygan is weather-iffy every year. It never formed this season, he said. The island’s medical staff is a half-dozen EMS workers and Schlund’s mother, a phlebotomist.

“It was ‘Listen it’s not that we don’t want you here, but we’re in a tough situation.’ If a couple of my guys go down (with COVID), we could be in trouble,” Brandon Schlund said.

“We’re like everybody,” he said. “We want to get back to normal.” 

‘People just wanted to get away’ 

Bois Blanc residents enjoy some good-natured smack toward their more celebrated neighbor to the west, Mackinac Island and its sweeping Grand Hotel and summertime crush of visitors in horse-drawn carriages. 

No fudge. No horseshit. No problem, its residents say.

The island’s 34 square miles with white birch, sugar maple and white pine, dwarfs Mackinac Island in size, but not in commerce. 

“Nature is a Priority,” the island website reads. There are three businesses on the island — a tavern, bed-and-breakfast, and restaurant-slash-general store-slash-souvenir shop. All are closed this time of the year.

So lunch?

“We’ll shoot you a deer,” teased Larry Phillips, a Realtor.

Mackinac Island’s much larger neighbor, Bois Blanc Island, remains largely unknown by most of Michigan. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)

Amid COVID and some particularly ugly politics, Phillips and his wife, Missy, said they had their best year ever in real estate — “mind-boggling,” he said — selling upwards of 35 homes, four times that of any other year.

Some purchased island houses sight unseen.

“People just wanted to get away,” Phillips said.

Residents acknowledge it takes a “special kind of person” to live here, and it’s unclear how many of the newcomers will stay. They must be prepared for weeks at a stretch without the freshest produce, and develop a taste for powdered milk.

Still, there’s a pride in the rugged independence that comes with island living, the spectacular waterfronts, a view of the Mackinac Bridge accessible by those willing to fly or ferry, and the peculiarity of attending school with just a handful of other students, often your siblings.

“It is paradise,” said Ben Nye, 52, who spends the summers on Mackinac Island selling kites, toys and souvenirs.

Two single-engine planes flew six public health nurses and staff to Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac Tuesday to deliver 50 doses of COVID vaccine to the island’s year-around residents. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)
Five staffers from the LMAS District Health Department organize the day’s paperwork and equipment for the 3 ½-hour vaccine clinic. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)

‘Let’s go!” 

Tuesday’s doses were delivered by a six-person team from the LMAS District Health Department, which covers four counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Bois Blanc represents the southernmost part of Mackinac County (it’s the M in LMAS). 

There was laughter on the runway as health workers unloaded vaccines, paperwork and lunches. Bobbi Ayotte, who coordinates LMASs emergency preparedness, signaled the team to load up the waiting Ford pick-up and SUV.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Every single person who signed up for shots showed up, many in heavy boots and ice-grabber cleats that make up their usual winter attire. They came in pairs and they came in groups.

One brought brownies to thank the crew — it’s the kind of gesture public health workers are getting used to again on the frontlines of vaccine delivery. 

Over three hours, the health team administered vaccines to residents in their 20s to their eighties. Yes, age eligibility restrictions were waived for Bois Blanc, another perk of remote island living. 

Elizabeth Suggitt of the health department helped pack supplies and move folding chairs as the clinic closed. In nearby St. Ignace, two single-engine planes were being readied to fetch the crew for the return trip.

“That’s got to be nearly every adult on the island,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling to be part of this.”

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