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A dose of hope: Local senior citizens seek out routes to freedom from COVID-19 hibernation

The jubilance was palpable at the event as both CRMC nurses and patients celebrated the milestone — a feeling of joy far too many have had far too few opportunities to experience in the past year.

Larry Johnson (left) waits for his dose of COVID-19 vaccine from Cuyuna Regional Medical Center RN Peggy Forstner Wednesday, Jan. 27, during a drive-up vaccination clinic for patients 65 and older. The clinic continued through Thursday with a total of 800 doses administered. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While COVID-19 vaccine remains scarce, gratitude was not in short supply this week in Crosby as hundreds of lakes area senior citizens lined up to receive their first doses.

Cuyuna Regional Medical Center offered its first vaccination clinic for those ages 65 and older Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 27-28, distributing nearly 800 shots to a population among the most vulnerable to the virus’ serious complications.

Cars roll into the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center drive-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Jan. 27, in Crosby. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“They seem to be doing a great job with the rollout,” said Gary Foye, who drove his mother-in-law through the drive-up clinic Wednesday with plans to return Thursday for his own dose. “You look at the lines down South and compared to what they’ve got going here, this couldn’t be any smoother.”


The jubilance was palpable at the event as both CRMC nurses and patients celebrated the milestone — a feeling of joy far too many have had far too few opportunities to experience in the past year.

“Today really is about giving the community something that they’ve wanted for a long time and that’s the COVID-19 vaccine,” said registered nurse Jenna Ritter, who donned a fur hat and ski goggles to fend off the single-digit temps. “I think our staff here is probably more excited than they are. I think this is the start to a new beginning and to bring some normalcy back for our community."

Richard Wiehle traveled from Remer to receive his first dose and said the moment was a very important one for him.


“Anybody with any common sense, I think, should get one,” he said. “Anybody that’s worried about their neighbors should get one. I can’t think of any reason why a person would not get one unless they have some allergic response to a shot. It’s entirely safe and I highly recommend everybody get one.”

Jenna Ritter, Registered Nurse, talks to patients who have parked in a waiting area Wednesday, Jan. 27, after receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby. Patients were asked to remain in their cars for 15 minutes to insure they would have no side effects from the vaccine. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Among the lucky few with early access to the vaccine’s preventative effects, those who lined up at CRMC added to the nearly 3,000 Crow Wing County residents vaccinated this week. This figure more than doubled the percentage of the county’s population who’ve received their first dose from 4% to 8.5%, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In the wake of the state’s shift to open access of the vaccine to the 65-plus crowd, that age group now accounts for nearly 45% of those vaccinated in Crow Wing, up from 25% a week earlier.


Brainerd’s Essentia Health is also vaccinating seniors, randomly selecting recipients from its patient database with plans to expand to non-patients shortly. Helen Gangsei of Pequot Lakes was relieved to learn this week her name was on that list after her far-flung children — one in Wisconsin and one in Vermont — both tried to help her get in line.

Registered nurses Peggy Forstner (left) and Angie Rieber vaccinate two people during a drive-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Jan. 27, at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby. During the two-day clinic, 800 patients 65 and older received the vaccine. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“They said they’ve been throwing everybody’s name in the hat,” Gangsei, 87, said. “So I was feeling really happy about that.”

She and her husband David Gangsei, 89, are spending their first winter in the lakes area after spending many summers at the East Twin Lake home her parents built. They opted to remain in the Northwoods in the age of social distancing because of the outdoor recreational opportunities and because “there’s a lot of room,” Helen Gangsei said.

“We are so grateful. It’s incredible, really. I mean, so many people want this shot and we just lucked out,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”

Most Minnesota seniors seeking the vaccine haven’t been quite as fortunate, however, with demand far outstripping the federal supply. Milton and Michele, who live near Nisswa, entered the statewide lottery this week along with 226,000 other Minnesotans to be vaccinated at one of nine pilot sites established by the Minnesota Department of Health. Late Wednesday night, a phone call with an automated message informed them they did not earn coveted appointment slots.


RoseAnn Johnson receives her dose of COVID-19 vaccine from RN Peggy Forstner Wednesday, Jan. 27, during a drive-up clinic at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center. The two day clinic served 800 patients 65 and older. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The octogenarian couple, who asked their last name be withheld, both suffer from preexisting medical conditions enhancing their risk from COVID-19.

“My wife has Parkinson’s, so I can’t bring the virus home to her. So we’re hibernating as much as we can,” Milton, 84, said. “I do the shopping. She used to do the shopping, but I’m a little more agile to move around in the grocery store.”


It’s been a long year of little in-person contact with friends and family. This year’s Thanksgiving was a quiet affair at home for the two, while Christmas brought with it a creative approach to visiting with loved ones, including a grandson home from college: a meet-up at Home Depot.
“There’s not too many people who go to shop for windows or stoves for Christmas,” Milton said. “ … The seven of us walked around and it was great. There was nobody around.”

While disappointed they have yet to access the peace of mind a vaccine will bring, Milton said they’re remaining patient and looking forward to that day, whenever it comes.

“It will mean a lot,” he said. “Hibernating in the winter is tough.”


Looking ahead

CRMC currently has no available COVID-19 vaccine and is not able to make appointments for vaccinations, the organization stated in a news release. If more doses become available, CRMC will contact its patients age 65 and older via email for an appointment. Patients who do not have an email address on file should send a message to cmarketing@cuyunamed.org . CRMC is not able to keep a waiting list.

Cuyuna Regional Medical Center patients seeking the latest information on COVID-19 vaccinations may call 218-545-4560. As new information is available, the message will be updated. CRMC will also continue to share information via news release to local media and by posting information on cuyunamed.org and social media sites.

A registered Nurse holds a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-up clinic Wednesday, Jan. 27, at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

If CRMC receives additional COVID-19 vaccine, the organization will set up drive-up clinics in Crosby. The currently available COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses 21 or 28 days apart, depending on the formulation.

Essentia Health expects to begin offering a vaccine sign-up to non-patients sometime in the upcoming week. Along with the health organization’s patients, Essentia intends to include anyone in the community who’d like to be in the mix to be randomly selected, once their priority group is permitted to be vaccinated.

Staples-based Lakewood Health System reported Friday it’s given the vaccine to 643 essential caregivers, and since Jan. 21, to those 65 and older. These vaccinations were made possible using Lakewood’s allocated doses from earlier in the month.

The organization’s vaccination process includes a drive-thru and mobile fish house in its Staples clinic parking lot, which allows people to remain in their vehicle when receiving their shot. Those involved directly in the vaccination process include Rural Physician Associate Program students and members of the patient access, clinic nursing and emergency medical services teams.


For those 65 and older who have not yet received their vaccination but would like one, call 218-894-1515 and choose option No. 2 to be added to Lakewood Health System’s waitlist. The waitlist is only for those 65 and older at this time.

Those with questions or concerns about the vaccine should contact their primary care provider, including those with a history of severe allergic reactions to vaccines or medications. More information about the COVID-19 vaccine is available at https://bit.ly/3clE6UD .

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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