About one-third of Crow Wing County’s 65-plus population received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Public health supervisor Michelle Moritz shared this statistic along with several other updates surrounding the pandemic and vaccination efforts with the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Feb. 9. Moritz said thanks to the efforts of community partners to distribute available doses as quickly as possible and to fill vacant appointment slots with seniors, Crow Wing County has now distributed more than half of its total doses to those 65 and older.

“We have a little ways to go there, and keep in mind that not everybody is accepting vaccinations and we have a number of snowbirds that may have gotten it in other parts of this country and will be vaccinated before they come back home,” Moritz said. “ … I’d love to see us upwards of two-thirds before we move on to vaccinating other individuals in our community. But that is something that is decided by the Department of Health and CDC, giving us guidance on who to target for that week or for that given period of time.”

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Nearly 15,000 Crow Wing County residents are at least 65 years old, according to the 2019 population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, and are among those facing elevated risk if they contract the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Within the seven-county region as of Tuesday, Crow Wing ranked third in terms of the proportion of those in that age bracket who’ve received at least one dose. Wadena and Aitkin counties — both of which claim populations less than a quarter of the size of Crow Wing’s — each report slightly higher percentages. In Wadena County, it’s 36.7% of seniors, and in Aitkin County, it’s 32.9%. Crow Wing County sat at 31.3%, nearly a full 10 percentage points higher than last-ranked Mille Lacs County.

Moritz said she’s happy with how Crow Wing County Public Health and other partners — including Essentia Health, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center and GuidePoint Pharmacy — are handling the distribution thus far. Typically, she learns on a Friday night how many doses will arrive the following week. Monday morning, planning and scheduling begins for vaccination clinics, and by Wednesday, they’re getting doses into people’s arms to meet the Minnesota Department of Health’s three-day distribution goal for first doses.

But those efforts are hampered by the small number of doses made available for those efforts in the first place, she said.

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“We expect to have our report card up and I’m happy to say it will be an A++, although that is not necessarily how it feels when you’re in the community and waiting for vaccine,” Moritz said. “We’re still waiting for vaccine to come in and also turning on other avenues for individuals to get vaccinated.”

Moritz said she welcomed the federal government’s plan to send vaccine directly to private pharmacies including Walmart, Thrifty White and Walgreens, increasing available outlets. And the introduction of an expected third vaccine producer on the market in Johnson & Johnson would be a game-changer in expanding opportunities to vaccinate more people, she added.

In the immediate future, public health officials will soon return to group homes and adult foster care settings to give second doses. School employees and child care providers will also receive the full protection of a second dose soon. Moritz noted the ever-expanding priority 1a group now includes college students working in health care settings in which their peers already have the opportunity to get vaccinated, such as clinical settings and dental offices.

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Another group of folks targeted by county public health for vaccination is residents 65 and older who are homebound. Moritz said about 50 people have registered so far to be notified when doses become available via a form available online at https://bit.ly/2Nd3K3k. People may also call Crow Wing County at 218-824-1289 to add someone to the list. Moritz asked the community to reserve this option for those truly homebound and in need — the county is not maintaining a waiting list for the general public to access the vaccine. Those with questions about the vaccine in general may call 218-824-1170.

“I do need people to know that this needs to be someone that could not come to the health care facility. And I can’t promise — actually, I’m going to say that you probably could get vaccinated by the health care centers sooner than we are allocated vaccine,” Moritz said. “We don’t have timelines necessarily going forward on when we’re going to be using the vaccine or how much we’re going to get. … We need people to work with us and really help us target those that truly need our help to come up to them.”

Commissioner Bill Brekken asked Moritz whether they’re seeing people refuse the vaccine. She responded since it’s voluntary, some are choosing to forgo vaccination — depending on the employer, anywhere from 25-75% of people are opting out. Brekken asked Moritz how this impacts efforts to tame COVID-19.

“I believe it would delay us moving forward with opening up our community and moving on from this pandemic,” she responded. “If people have the opportunity to be vaccinated — unless they have a contraindication (such as an allergy) — I fully recommend that they get vaccinated so that we can move on.

“ … Thankfully, there are plenty of people that are willing and able and want that vaccine and they’re waiting to get vaccinated. But when people are declining and they have the opportunity, it's just delaying us moving forward.”

Numbers update

The state reported the deaths of two area residents over the weekend: a Mille Lacs County resident, age 60-64, and a Crow Wing County man, age 80-84, who represents the county’s 80th COVID-19-related fatality. Crow Wing also surpassed the 5,000-case mark, sitting at 5,038 cases as of Tuesday.

Case growth remains significantly slower than the peak experienced in November. This is notably apparent in congregate care facilities, which bore the brunt of the disease and were among the first to gain access to the vaccine. The latest data released Thursday, Feb. 4, shows several facilities dropped off the list of those with recent exposures. This includes Good Samaritan Society-Bethany in south Brainerd, the first in the region to report cases in May and where 25 residents ultimately succumbed to the disease. Aitkin and Cass counties both no longer have any facilities with active exposures.

Just five facilities in the seven-county area reported new cases during the previous week beginning Jan. 29, and four of those reported a single case.

COVID-19 data as of Feb. 9

  • Aitkin — 1,144, with 33 deaths; as of Sunday, Feb. 7, 2,713 residents received at least one vaccine dose, representing 17.1% of the county’s population.

  • Cass — 2,130, with 24 deaths; 3,349 residents with at least one dose, 11.4%.

  • Crow Wing — 4,991, with 80 deaths; 8,296 residents with at least one dose, 12.9%.

  • Mille Lacs — 2,202, with 46 deaths; 2,721 residents with at least one dose, 10.5%.

  • Morrison — 3,175, with 46 deaths; 3,574 residents with at least one dose, 10.8%.

  • Todd — 2,360, with 30 deaths; 2,602 residents with at least one dose, 10.6%.

  • Wadena — 1,226, with 19 deaths; 1,677 residents with at least one dose, 12.3%.

NOTE: These numbers are cumulative since March 21, 2020, and many are out of isolation.

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UPDATE: The phone number for people to call concerning vaccinations for homebound senior citizens was incorrectly listed. That information was corrected, and it was also clarified Crow Wing County is not maintaining a waiting list for the general public to access the vaccine.

The Dispatch regrets the error.

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