REGIONAL- While Minnesota continues ramping up efforts to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to a restricted group of high-risk healthcare providers and residents of long-term care facilities, an …
REGIONAL- While Minnesota continues ramping up efforts to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to a restricted group of high-risk healthcare providers and residents of long-term care facilities, an announcement on Tuesday by the Trump administration almost certainly will cause state health officials to rethink their plans.
Having achieved only two million of the 20 million vaccinations promised by the end of December, federal officials change course on Tuesday, adopting a plan proposed last week by President-elect Joe Biden to distribute all available vaccine doses immediately, rather than holding second doses for later distribution. The reversal is a stunning development given the criticism of Biden’s proposal leveled last Friday by Operation Warp Speed spokesman Michael Pratt.
“If President-elect Biden is calling for the distribution of vaccines knowing that there would not be a second dose available, that decision is without science or data and is contrary to the FDA’s approved label,” Pratt said.
Minnesota Department of Health officials had little to offer in response to questions about the change at a Tuesday afternoon press conference, taking a wait-and-see posture as they look for forthcoming guidance.
“We are ready to see more vaccines if the feds are ready to follow through on their promise,” MDH Epidemiology Director Kris Ehresman said. “More vaccine becoming available to more people more quickly would be a welcome development. But we’ll follow the adage ‘trust but verify.’ A promise to deliver isn’t delivering, and we’ve learned to be patient when it comes to federal government promises.”
A second change announced by the feds is a recommendation to start providing the vaccine to anyone over the age of 65, scrapping the original directive being followed in Minnesota to prioritize healthcare workers and long-term care residents first. Changing the plan is possible, Ehresmann said, but expanding the eligible pool of vaccine recipients could be a daunting challenge.
“If we are looking at 65 (and older) that’s 530,000 in Minnesota; 65 to 74 is 388,000 people,” she said. “If you add in individuals from 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions, that’s probably 30 to 40 percent of the population. So that is a huge swath of the population without a potentially huge influx of new doses, and that does potentially create some challenges.”
But without any guidance yet from the federal government, Minnesota will continue for now with its priority distribution and vaccination system, Ehresmann said.
Officials also unveiled a new dashboard on the MDH website dedicated to information about vaccine supplies and distribution. The dashboard can be viewed by clicking on the “Vaccine Data” link at mn.gov/vaccine.
St. Louis County
County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook briefed county commissioners Tuesday morning about vaccination efforts and other COVID-19 information and spoke with the Timberjay that afternoon to elaborate on her presentation.
While Westbrook reported to commissioners that the local health department has administered 800 of the 1,000 doses of vaccine it has received, the county COVID-19 dashboard showed that as of Tuesday just over 8,000 people had gotten their first dose of vaccine. The numbers aren’t contradictory, Westbrook explained, because the health department is just one of three entities receiving and administering vaccines, the other two being hospitals and pharmacies, and each has its own target population. Vaccines administered by all three are combined for the countywide total.
“The federal government has contracted with Walgreens and CVS and Thrifty White to administer vaccines to skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes, and some assisted living facilities,” Westbrook said. “The hospital systems are responsible for vaccinating their own health care workers.”
The county department is tasked for now with administering vaccines to emergency first responders who aren’t associated with a hospital or healthcare system.
“They’re mostly from volunteer systems,” Westbrook said. “For us it’s primarily paramedics, EMTs, advanced EMTs and emergency medical responders.”
Toward that end, area vaccination clinics to administer first doses to eligible personnel were held last week in both Cook and Ely, with an ongoing site being set up in Ely.
The federally directed Pharmacy Partnership Program isn’t only for facilities located in communities with a Walgreens, CVS, or Thrifty White pharmacy, Westbrook said. Her department has been working to identify facilities that are not already associated with those facilities and get them hooked up with the program.
“They are doing outreach, and we’re trying to get as many long-term care and assisted living facilities enrolled into the pharmacy program as possible, regardless of where they’re located in St. Louis County,” she said.
Some facilities in the North Country have already received initial vaccinations, while others have been scheduled for vaccination visits by pharmacists and certified technicians.
The proposed changes in vaccine distribution and target groups would present some short-term challenges in the county, Westbrook said.
“There would still have to be an orderly process of getting vaccine out,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to immediately administer that many doses, we wouldn’t even be able to store that many doses. Right now, we’ve been doing it in pretty small locations, such as our government buildings and some community centers. We would have to do it as it as we receive vaccine, and we are securing larger sites for vaccination. We realize that if we go beyond that older population earlier than we initially thought, we need larger venues to do that. We wouldn’t be ready to ramp up tomorrow, but we’re hoping to get there in the next couple of weeks.”
Additional capacity will also be available beginning in about a week with two new trailers that are currently being modified to provide mobile testing and vaccination clinics.
“We’re getting people trained. We’re getting the right technology in there and the operations figured out,” Westbrook said.
While concerns remain about the possibility of COVID-19 infection rates rising again, Westbrook said there’s a renewed sense of hope now that vaccinations are underway.
“This is a really important time right now because we know the vaccine is getting out. We’re not able to mass distribute it yet, but we are seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Federally recognized tribal organizations are yet another distinct group for vaccinations, and efforts for the Bois Forte Band have been ongoing since mid-December, according to information provided on the tribe’s website.
High-risk and language-fluent elders were among the first priority group to receive the Pfizer vaccine doses that also included health and emergency workers, tribal police, Head Start teachers, and selected other employees. That phase was completed on Jan. 7.
On the same day, the Moderna vaccine became available by appointment at the Nett Lake and Vermilion clinics for people between 45 and 55 years old who live on the reservation. The announcement of this phase also noted that the availability of the vaccine varies depending on how many doses the tribe receives each week.
At this point, no additional vaccine doses have been made available for Minnesota to order. No additional doses have been shipped to Minnesota, and no additional doses have arrived.