REGIONAL- More than half of eligible Minnesotans have now received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, but disparities exist at the county level, and the number of weekly vaccinations fell off …
REGIONAL- More than half of eligible Minnesotans have now received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, but disparities exist at the county level, and the number of weekly vaccinations fell off last week after a short surge due to increased eligibility.
More than 2.3 million Minnesotans, 52 percent of the eligible population, had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of this past Sunday, and the numbers were even better for counties in northeastern Minnesota. St. Louis and Lake counties had reached 58 percent of those eligible, while Carlton County was at 62 percent, and Cook County led all counties in the state at 76 percent.
But the top 20 counties appear to be faring far better than the 20 at the bottom in reaching residents with first doses. The combined average at the top was 58.1 percent, but the bottom 20 checked in at just 39.6 percent.
St. Louis County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook said the county’s 12th-place ranking among the state’s 87 counties is likely due to the diverse distribution network here.
“We’re a really big county, but we have multiple different health systems working in different parts of the county,” Westbrook said. “We also have a state-sponsored site in Duluth that’s ongoing. We had the Mt. Iron clinic that occurred in February. We have the tribes getting vaccine out, we have pharmacy systems, we have healthcare systems, we have the state, and we have local government. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to get vaccine into people’s arms.”
An important factor Westbrook believes has played a role is the confidence people have in their health care providers, including in rural areas.
“In small communities, health care systems are more trusted or could be more trusted, and people who are connected to pharmacies are more trusted,” she said. “One of the biggest factors that influences vaccine uptake is having positive, good relationships with healthcare.”
After all Minnesotans age 16 and older became eligible to receive vaccines on March 30, weekly vaccinations statewide surged to their highest level yet— 404,447 in the first full week of April. That number fell, however, by 13 percent last week, to 350,736. It’s a pattern Westbrook has seen before.
“This is how pretty much all of our phases have gone,” she said. “One week, you’ll see clinics fill to the max and then the next week, there’s just a hint of a few slots going unfilled, and then the next week, it’ll be more dramatic. We saw that with the 65-plus, and now we’re seeing it with the general public.”
County-administered clinics last week had more available slots than they had patients, and registrations as of Wednesday morning for this week’s clinics showed signs of a similar trend. Thrifty White pharmacies in Virginia and Hibbing had more than 200 openings available. Cook Hospital had a 60-dose clinic last Friday, and a social media post that same day indicated spaces were still available.
“We’ve seen a saturation, I guess, of individuals who have been clamoring for vaccine, who want it, who are well informed, and who are coming into the clinics to get it because they’re seeking it out,” Westbrook said.
While vaccinations have been increasing, they are still well short of the 80-90 percent level state and national health experts have said is needed to achieve herd immunity, and a key to attaining that will be persuading some of those who have been hesitant to get the vaccine to do so.
Minnesota may be in better shape than most states in that regard according to a survey conducted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccine hesitancy in the state is estimated to be 11-12 percent in most Minnesota counties, and no county is above 14 percent. By contrast, South Dakota counties range from 20 to 29 percent vaccine hesitant, and North Dakota counties from 27 to 31 percent.
However, holdouts may be a hard sell. An Axios-Ipsos poll conducted early this week reported that two out of three Americans who haven’t yet received the coronavirus vaccine are unlikely to get the shots. A Monmouth University poll released last week found that 21 percent of Americans are unwilling to get vaccinated, with a strong partisan divide – 43 percent of Republicans said they want to avoid the vaccine altogether, while only five percent of Democrats responded that way.
“I think we’ll continue to see people see that their neighbors are getting vaccinated, see that their employer is promoting it, or their school is promoting it and get vaccinated,” Westbrook said. “And there will be a percent of people who don’t want to get vaccinated at all. We want to make sure that we reach as many people in the population as possible. We want to be more deliberate about education, outreach, and promotion.”
New COVID-19 cases were reported in four of the six North Country zip codes monitored by the Timberjay. Ely had seven new cases, which represents another positive step down from its March spike. Four new cases were reported in Tower, three in Cook, and one in Embarrass. Soudan had no new cases for a third consecutive week, and Orr hasn’t had a new case reported since Feb. 25.
County numbers also dropped in the three most recent days, but Westbrook was reluctant to call it a trend, and numbers remain close to the level associated with accelerated community spread. While hospitalizations have leveled off, Westbrook noted that the number of patients in intensive care has risen. Variant forms of the virus remain a primary concern. Westbrook stressed the overall need to press ahead with vaccinations.
“It’s going to take more than a 16-plus vaccination rate of 56 percent,” she said. “We’re not going to get there, we’re not going to get through this pandemic if we have that little of the population vaccinated. We’re really looking to everybody to do their part to help control this pandemic so that we all can get back to the normal life that we really remember and want to get back to.”
Restaurant aid coming
Restaurants, bars, and similar food service establishments will soon be eligible to receive financial assistance through the $28.6 billion Small Business Administration Restaurant Revitalization Program, and the St. Louis County Planning and Community Development Department wants to help people apply.
The county will host two virtual information sessions to provide information and answer questions about the program. The sessions will be Friday, April 23, at 11 a.m. and Wednesday, April 28, at 6 p.m. More information and links to join the meeting can be found on the county’s COVID-19 Business Resources page at stlouiscountymn.gov/c19business.
According to the SBA’s guidelines, grants will range from $1,000 to $5 million per location for applicants who meet eligibility requirements. Eligible uses include payroll, mortgage, rent, debt service, utilities, supplies, construction of outdoor seating, and similar business operating expenses.