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In Minnesota's least-vaccinated counties, local health providers work to educate, encourage

The focus from health care leaders about the COVID-19 vaccine is this: They’re available to answer questions, they want to make receiving the vaccine convenient and they’re supportive of the vaccine.

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Addyson Gravelle, left, receives the COVID-19 vaccine alongside her sister Payton Gravelle with Tri-County Health Care LPN Amber Block administering the vaccine. Their mom Wendy Gravelle is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist at Tri-County. Contributed / Tri-County Health Care, 2021
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WADENA, Minn. — The lakes area’s vaccination rates have remained low while COVID-19 cases are increasing again. The delta variant and schools starting soon have aided only slightly in the vaccination rate, as health care leaders said.

The focus from health care leaders about the COVID-19 vaccine is this: They’re available to answer questions, they want to make receiving the vaccine convenient and they’re supportive of the vaccine, as Dr. Christine Albrecht said. She is the chief medical officer at Lakewood Health System and a family medicine provider.

“We have not seen a lot of interest lately (about being vaccinated),” said Katherine Mackedanz, Todd County Health and Human Services community health manager. “I think with the delta variant, and we’re having a little bit of an uptick in cases, we might see a few more people who start to realize that there’s a little more sense of urgency around being vaccinated.”

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The “trickle” of people receiving the vaccine in Todd County started after March, according to Mackedanz. Tri-County Health Care has a “steady stream” of patients being vaccinated, though following a “big dip” from the start of 2021, as RN Abbey Truh said. At Lakewood Health System, a bump in the vaccine rate brought 83 patients a week at the start of August compared to 72 patients a week in July. The vaccination rate when the hospital had a fish house clinic was 100 patients per hour, including people coming from the Twin Cities.

“If we can get our vaccine rate higher we can really control the spread of it (the virus) and help prevent some of these variants,” Truh said. She has managed Tri-County’s COVID-19 vaccine clinics since December 2020. “Herd immunity is a huge thing in protecting people that can’t have vaccines or people who are immunocompromised , and just if we can get that rate higher, we can really slow the spread and protect other people.”

In Wadena County, 39% of the total population has received at least one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Todd County is at 38% and Otter Tail County is at 48%, according to Minnesota Department of Health data as of Aug. 15.

After having the lowest vaccination rate in Minnesota, Todd County is now the second lowest in the state behind No. 1 Clearwater (35% vaccinated), with Wadena County as the third lowest. Mackedanz said about 1,200 people were correctly added to Todd County’s percentage based on residence. Wadena County Public Health director Cindy Pederson said people were correctly removed from Wadena County due to zip codes that place people in Otter Tail or Becker counties. MDH warns data may be submitted incorrectly and that they work to correct any errors. The preliminary data is from the Minnesota Immunization Information Connection system.

The vaccination rates are higher for people 65 years old and above with Wadena County at 80%, Todd County 72% and Otter Tail County 83%.

“We’re really happy about that because we know our 65+ is our most vulnerable and who’s been impacted the most by COVID,” Mackedanz said.

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As the ages drop, however, the concern goes up, as Mackedanz said. For those 16 years old and older, the percentage of those fully vaccinated decreases to 49% in Wadena County, 47% in Todd County and 58% in Otter Tail County. Minnesota is at 70%. The eligibility of 12-17-year-olds for the Pfizer vaccine did not increase the area’s rates significantly, as Truh and Mackedanz said.

"Our unvaccinated are our most vulnerable population. People not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine; including our children under the age of 12, also benefit when adults get the vaccine to help prevent the spread of the virus to those that are not able to get a vaccine themselves," Wadena County Public Health said in a statement.

The goal of the vaccines are to prevent hospitalizations and death from the illness. People who receive the vaccine can still have COVID-19. Minnesota’s rate of breakthrough cases is 0.240% with 2,989,353 people vaccinated as of July 18, according to MDH.

“You might still get COVID if you have the vaccine but your chance of getting really, really sick from COVID is extremely low. And so the vaccine is effective and safe and we haven’t seen, I think, any significant side effects,” Albrecht said. You can read more about side effects , which show the body is forming immunity to the virus, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The CDC says severe allergic reactions and blood clots are rare .

The vaccination effort includes a lot of education , as Truh said, like sharing that not all articles online are true. She said articles should include verified and fact-checked information as well as peer-reviewed information for scientific studies. And these are questions the health care systems are glad to help with along with easing fears.

“I just feel like giving them the best information and letting them make their decision versus try and push them into a decision also helps,” Truh said.

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While talking with patients, Albrecht said they are “hopeful” about people being willing to receive the vaccine. Providers talk with patients at every appointment about if they’ve received the vaccine, any questions and understanding any hesitations people have.

Health care leaders said the concerns people share are: the safety of the vaccines, their effectiveness, the full Food and Drug Administration approval, the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to rare blood clots, the development speed, the government funding of the operation, side effects of the vaccines, the political game of the pandemic and long-term effects of the vaccine.

“That’s probably … the biggest concern we have is just the newness of it,” Albrecht said. “Hopefully now as we’re heading into the eighth or ninth month of giving these vaccines people are starting to see that it is effective and it’s safe.”

The vaccines are approved through the FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization . Pfizer and Moderna have applied for full approval .

People like to gather more information and data before deciding on these topics, as health care leaders said. Wadena County Public Health encourages people to receive the vaccine as they are “the best tool we have to fight COVID-19.”

“Todd County overall has lower vaccine uptake than other counties so even with our flu vaccine we typically only see about 50% of our adults getting the flu vaccine each year, and it can be lower than that some years too,” Mackedanz said. “We do have a population that I wouldn’t say is against vaccines but is hesitant sometimes to get all the recommended vaccines.”

Social vulnerability factors such as education, access to health care and health insurance, poverty, unemployment, household composition, minority status including race, ethnicity, and language, housing and transportation also affect the counties’ vaccination rates, as Truh and Pederson said. These gaps are trying to be addressed with the vaccine at no cost, partnering between organizations, clinics at work sites and schools as requested and daily appointments and walk-in availability. Todd County also does not require an ID.

With the school year approaching, more students in the 12 years old and above category are receiving the vaccine , though Truh said “I just wish we could get more.”

“One thing that helps too is now that people are getting vaccinated … when they go back to school if they have exposures they won’t necessarily have to quarantine anymore,” Truh said. “And just the different precautions if you are vaccinated versus if you aren’t really help people to want to get vaccinated, especially some of these students who were sick of being quarantined all school year last year.”

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Payton Gravelle receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Tri-County Health Care. Contributed / Tri-County Health Care, 2021

The vaccination effort stresses the reduction of hospitalizations and deaths for people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine — like other vaccines, as Mackedanz said.

“I hope long-term we’ll see increasing effectiveness in all of our vaccines,” Mackedanz said. “We know the reason that people die of chronic disease versus infectious disease now is due to vaccines, and that’s been a major public health achievement over the last 100 years and we don’t want to go back. We want to continue to have safe vaccines developed that people believe in.”

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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