Updated: July 30, 2021 10:46 PM
Created: July 30, 2021 10:30 PM
In the Saint Louis Park High School field house, a Hennepin County team welcomed the nearly 200 people who turned out to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s a lot bigger than what we've had in the recent past,” said Mary Skube, a community health specialist with Hennepin County Public Health.
Skube believes the turnout could be attributed to a combination of the county’s Visa gift card incentive program, concerns over the delta variant and the amount of time that’s passed since the vaccines received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Thursday event was one of several vaccination clinics the county is hosting over the next two weeks.
“I just wanted to see what the symptoms were at first,” said Kelsea Sullivan, of St. Louis Park, who was initially hesitant to get the vaccine. “I thought, 'Well, might as well do it at this point. It’s getting closer to that FDA approval.'”
Sullivan said receiving $50 per shot, “was part of the cool incentive to come in and get it done.”
According to the county, 1,249 total gift cards were distributed by July 25.
Hennepin County is among a cluster of counties around the metro area where more than 70% of those eligible have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“Minnesota is good but we need to do better,” Skube said.
It’s been about four months since the state opened up vaccinations to all Minnesotans 16 years of age and older. It’s been about two months since it's been an option for those 12 years old and up.
So far, 67% of eligible Minnesotans have received at least one shot. Nearly 64% of those eligible have completed their vaccine series.
Only two counties in the state have reached 80% of their population receiving at least one dose: Olmsted and Cook counties.
“I think it's been a combination of trying to make this really easy for people to access and trying to be really consistent about that messaging and communication,” said Grace Grinager, the Cook County Public Health supervisor, of their success. “Cook County, Minnesota is one of the smaller counties population-wise in the state so we're just about 5,600 people […] Because we are so small, we really had to work together.”
She explained they collaborated with community health centers, North Shore Health Hospital, tribal partners and local businesses to encourage and complete vaccinations. A county team also went out on the road doing pop-up events to reach those in rural areas.
“We have an older population than the state on average, about a third of our county is 65 and older, so a number of people were eligible for vaccines very early on. There was definitely demand in that group, that's the group we see the highest vaccination rate with here in Cook County, and then, as time has gone on and the vaccine has been easier to access, we have seen the volume of people getting vaccinated drop,” Grinager said. “At this point we're down to everyone ages 12 and up and we're still kind of moving forward in that collaborative approach and that's really been at the heart of our efforts to vaccines.”
Similar efforts in other counties, however, have been less effective.
“We’ve done mailings, we've done newspaper, we've had the vaccine bus that [the Minnesota Department of Health] provided come up here for a week, we worked on door to door education,” listed Katherine Mackedanz, the community health manager for Todd County Health and Human Services. “We continue this work every day, it’s just unfortunately we’re not seeing that uptake.”
In Todd County, only about 43% of those 12 and older have received a dose of the vaccine.
“Our county traditionally has a low vaccine uptake rate on all of our vaccines so, while it's disappointing to see low vaccine rates for COVID-19, it's not surprising,” Mackedanz said. “We’re in a rural area, as you know, and people don’t have as many interactions with large groups so there can be this misconception that they’re safety because they’re in a smaller area. We’re really trying to educate around that – that COVID impacts all of us.”
Mackedanz attributes vaccine hesitancy to a combination of factors. She said some seem to be concerned about whether the vaccines are safe while others are waiting to see whether their employer will require a vaccine.
“It shouldn’t be political but we are a very red county and that, unfortunately, that seems to have some weight here,” she said. “The COVID restrictions did not go over well in our county and there are some who don’t want to get vaccinated because they don’t want to support the current administration.”
Todd County Health and Human Services Director Jackie Och told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS there are additional barriers in their county. According to the latest census data, nearly 7% of county residents identify as Hispanic or Latino.
“We are working as close as we can with that community in providing the education and the resources in a bilingual fashion that they need,” Och said. “We're also working with our Mennonite community and our Amish communities that struggle with vaccine hesitancy overall.”
They remain hopeful the county will reach a 70 or 80% vaccination rate but believe it will take time.
“We know our work isn’t done,” said Och.
In about 10 counties statewide, fewer than 50% of those eligible have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Another 50 counties remain below a 60% vaccination rate.
“Our approach over this last phase, or this phase that we're in, has really been to offer vaccine in much more targeted ways,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of MDH's Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division. “At the state health department level, working with different communities, we have the mobile buses, local public health is doing this as well.”
MDH is also transitioning away from the state’s community mass vaccination sites, which they started closing this week. All locations, except for Mall of America, will close by Aug. 7.
“We know that our pharmacies, our health care providers, local public health, there are multiple different avenues for people to receive vaccine,” Ehresmann said. “It doesn't make sense to maintain a mass vaccination site if you're only having a hand full of people attend that site. It makes more sense to say we're going to have people go to a festival or go to a county fair or encouraged people to visit their health care provider.”
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Ehresmann whether the state is confident that all counties will eventually reach at least a 70% vaccination rate.
“I think the bottom line is we're not going to give up,” she said.
The delta variant is adding urgency to the fight.
"It is spread very, very easily," Ehresmann said. "And we're seeing the proportion of our cases hospitalized has increased. We were at about 4.5% last fall at our really bad peak time and now we're over 9% of our cases hospitalized [...] We are concerned about what this delta variant could mean for us and so that's why we continue to push vaccination, that is really the best way to control this virus."
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