For those among the more vulnerable populations, the knowledge of an existing COVID-19 vaccine they’re not yet eligible to receive means a test of patience.
“I like to do Sudoku. I’ve done some picture puzzles. I think I’ve read my Bible from Genesis to Revelations,” said an 89-year-old resident of a senior living complex in Brainerd.
The woman, who asked to not be identified, called the Dispatch on several occasions seeking information about how to get the vaccine. Nearing her 90s and facing a heart condition, she said her doctor told her this spring she would need to strictly isolate to avoid potentially serious consequences of contracting the sometimes-fatal disease caused by the coronavirus.
But the months of isolation are catching up with the widow who lives alone, she said. She misses socializing with others from her church, the cold put a kibosh on outdoor visits with her grandchildren and even the simple act of shopping for oneself sounds like an appealing escape.
“When the vaccines were approved, I thought, ‘Oh, goody, goody,’” she said. “Now it’s going on a couple of weeks. It’s been approved at least a month ago, and I don’t know what’s holding everything up. I would think that they could go faster.”
“For those people who are afraid, those who might be elderly, those who might be shut-ins, those who might have underlying health conditions — they’re afraid. And I understand that. We understand that very keenly. We’re coming, and we’re going to come as fast as we can. As fast as we can."
— Tim Houle, Crow Wing County administrator
Faced with a limited supply of doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the state of Minnesota has yet to expand its vaccinations beyond those identified as the first priority group, or phase 1A — health care workers, emergency medical services responders and residents of skilled nursing facilities. Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann told lawmakers Wednesday, Jan. 6, doses should be headed toward those in assisted living settings within the next week.
Ehresmann said the state hopes to begin vaccinating first responders, teachers, grocery store workers, adults 75 and older and others in the 1B category next month and provide the second dose of the immunizations to those who’ve been vaccinated in the first tier, but Minnesota's ability to do that is contingent on federal distribution.
“It is the supply that’s the challenge,” she said.
Crow Wing County officials echoed Ehresmann’s assessment of the situation this week. It’s been nearly three weeks since the first county residents — frontline health care workers — were inoculated. In the meantime, a total of 1,167 people who live in Crow Wing County have received those first doses as of Friday. But County Administrator Tim Houle said it chokes him up to know so many, especially seniors, are waiting desperately for the vaccine to bring some modicum of normalcy back into their lives.
“For those people who are afraid, those who might be elderly, those who might be shut-ins, those who might have underlying health conditions — they’re afraid,” Houle said during a video interview. “And I understand that. We understand that very keenly. We’re coming, and we’re going to come as fast as we can. As fast as we can.
“ … We need the vaccine. But we know you’re there, and we hear you, and it pains me to think I can’t get there fast enough. We’re coming as fast as we can.”
Assurances they’re next on the list aside, Minnesota seniors are watching from afar as those ages 65-plus in Florida are eligible to be vaccinated. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis broke with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and said he would prioritize this group above several “frontline worker” groups such as first responders, postal employees, grocery store workers and teachers. He also made the vaccine available to those a decade younger than the CDC-recommended 75 years old for the second phase. Governors in Texas, Ohio and Delaware also made similar departures.
Since then, DeSantis has faced mounting criticism over throwing the doors open to a vast population group without a statewide plan, resulting in seniors — including those who aren’t permanent residents of the state — waiting hours and sometimes overnight in their vehicles to become vaccinated. The chaos of the decentralized approach to distribution also played a role in wealthy hospital donors gaining access to doses without having to brave the lines, crashing websites or overrun phone systems, the Miami Herald reported.
Florida also finds itself toward the bottom of the list in terms of how much of its vaccine allotment it’s distributed, according to an analysis by USA Today — 23% as of Tuesday, compared to Minnesota’s 36.5%, which falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The Minnesota Department of Health states on its website the next two phases of vaccine distribution are expected to fall in line with CDC recommendations, including those 75 years or older — although when it will be available to those populations remains an open question, based on when the federal government acquires more to distribute to states. The Minnesota COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation Advisory Group is set to meet Monday to discuss further federal recommendations and provide input on how to implement them in the state. The decision on whether or not to remain in line with CDC guidance ultimately rests with Walz.
“The conversations about who’s going to come in in what order are inevitably difficult conversations,” Houle said. “ … I think we should have empathy for those folks who are sitting in their home alone, who haven’t seen their families for a long time. Gosh, it’s not hard to relate to the fact that they want this to be done. … We’re going to move through this judiciously, we’re going to move through this as fast as we can get a supply and reasonably do it well. Right now, that is exactly what we’re doing. We don’t have enough doses. And that goes for everyone. There’s not enough to go around, so right now, we are prioritizing.”
All the explanations in the world won’t make vaccination day come any sooner for those so close, yet seemingly so far away from gaining that extra sense of security while navigating the outside world.
“This is where the patience part is going to need to come is, we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Houle said. “We can’t stop face masks, social distance, good hand hygiene. We need to be patient. We don’t have a choice. We have to be patient here.”