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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Boosters, kids, and breakthroughs put vaccines on center stage

David Colburn
Posted 10/27/21

REGIONAL- With new approvals for COVID-19 booster shots for all three U.S. vaccines and reviews underway for emergency approval of one for use with younger children, Minnesota health officials last …

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Boosters, kids, and breakthroughs put vaccines on center stage

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REGIONAL- With new approvals for COVID-19 booster shots for all three U.S. vaccines and reviews underway for emergency approval of one for use with younger children, Minnesota health officials last week put a stronger statistical spin on the dangers of COVID infections for the unvaccinated.
Bolstered by accumulating Minnesota data on breakthrough cases among those fully vaccinated for COVID-19, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm accentuated the increased risk for those who haven’t gotten immunized at an Oct. 20 press conference.
“Our Minnesota data show that if you are not fully vaccinated, you are 15 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are fully vaccinated,” Malcolm said. “Those not fully vaccinated are 30 times more likely to die as a result of COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.”
The August/September surge in cases driven by the delta variant was a primary contributor to the increasing disparity in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
“A small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19. This is normal with any vaccine to see a percentage of vaccinated people still get sick,” Malcolm said. “The current wave of COVID infections is concentrated fully among people who are not fully vaccinated, and it shows that the risk is there for all age groups. The vast majority of cases, hospital, and deaths are in those who are not fully vaccinated.”
Statewide, 62.6 percent of the total population have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 59.1 percent, nearly 3.3 million people, have completed their vaccine series. Looking at only those 12 and older who are eligible to be vaccinated, 70 percent have completed their vaccine shots.
State epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield pointed out that an increasing number of breakthrough cases needs to be viewed in light of these numbers, rather than interpreted as a sign that vaccines are not effective. As more and more people get vaccinated, there are more people who could experience a breakthrough case, she explained, and the numbers will rise accordingly. The risks compared to the unvaccinated are still exceedingly small.
“We know that vaccine makes illness less severe,” Malcolm said. “Vaccination continues to be our best prevention measure against this surge of COVID 19 and potential future surges.”
However, after finally hitting a benchmark of having 70 percent of those 16 and older with at least one shot in mid-August, six weeks later than originally hoped for, vaccinations in that segment of the population have grown only 4.5 percent.
The weekly number of doses of vaccine delivered appears to be shifting away from newly vaccinated to those seeking COVID booster shots. In the first two weeks of administering Pfizer boosters, the state’s weekly vaccination doses more than doubled to about 111,000 per week. Now that boosters have been approved for the other two vaccines, officials anticipate a similar surge.

Booster shots
Minnesota health care providers got the green light last week to begin administering COVID vaccination booster shots for all three coronavirus vaccines, after federal approval was given for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine boosters.
The guidance for recipients of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine is the most straightforward. All of them are recommended to receive a booster shot at least two months after their initial vaccination. That booster can be any one of the three vaccine brands. Less than five percent of Minnesotans received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are recommended only for select age groups and groups who are at higher risk from COVID than the general population, including:
• Anyone 65 years and older
• Those 18 and older who live in long-term care settings
• Those 18 and older with qualifying underlying medical conditions
Federal reviewers did not find evidence to support general widespread boosters among all Pfizer and Moderna recipients.
The “mix and match” approach of having a booster shot of a different brand is thought to increase the overall strength of a person’s immune response to COVID-19, particularly among Johnson & Johnson recipients.

School-age vaccinations
CDC approval for the administration of the Pfizer vaccine is anticipated as soon as this coming week for children ages five to 11, and data for Moderna’s approval for the same group has been submitted for consideration.
But while health officials have been promoting the benefits of childhood immunization for COVID-19 ever since the age for receiving the Pfizer vaccine dropped to 12, multiple indicators suggest that it won’t be an easy sell to many parents.
In Minnesota, only half of 12 to 15-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, that despite a large surge in school-related cases in September that has significantly declined in recent weeks. The rate among those 16 and 17 is slightly higher but combined the vaccination rates are well below the combined state rates.
Vaccination rates for those same age groups in St. Louis County mirror the state numbers.

Regional vaccinations
The state has published zip-code-level data showing that the lowest vaccination rate based on total population in the six North Country zip codes monitored by the Timberjay is in Orr, at 47.2 percent, and Embarrass is also on the low end at 49.2 percent. Soudan is on the high side of the vaccination chart with 73.2 percent, followed by Cook with 69.9 percent, Ely with 66.2 percent, and Tower with 65.3 percent.
New weekly cases were reported in all six zips last Thursday, including Orr, 12; Cook, 6; Ely, 8; Embarrass, 3; Soudan, 5; and Tower, 5.

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