A group of community-based organizations partnered with the Minnesota Department of Health to connect the state’s diverse communities to COVID-19 testing, vaccination and other resources.

These organizations, called COVID Community Coordinators, seek to serve communities hardest hit by the pandemic, including communities of color, American Indian communities, LGBTQ communities and Minnesotans with disabilities.

Among those contracting with the state is Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeast Minnesota, which serves people with disabilities who live independently in 10 counties including Aitkin, Cass and Crow Wing.

“It is essential to draw on community strengths and trusted community networks to respond effectively to COVID-19 and to longstanding health inequities made worse by the pandemic,” the health department states on its website.

With four offices throughout the region including one in Brainerd, Access North provides five core services: independent living skills training; information on and referral to services including housing, food support, health care, employment and more; advocacy; peer mentoring/group support; and transitioning to the community. The Department of Health partnership aims to make COVID-19 information specific to those with disabilities more accessible.

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A free pantry outside Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeast Minnesota in Brainerd makes pandemic-related household supplies available to anyone in the community. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
A free pantry outside Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeast Minnesota in Brainerd makes pandemic-related household supplies available to anyone in the community. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

COVID Community Coordinators can answer questions about where to get tested, what COVID-19 vaccines are available and how and where to get vaccinated, food support, health care and mental health resources, housing and rental assistance, COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing, and employment resources.

Jake Knaffla, an independent living skills specialist with Access North, leads the COVID-19 community coordination at the center. He said the most challenging things for their clients during the pandemic are isolation and access to technology, and lately, the most common questions relate to the vaccine.

“You know, how do I get one, where do I get one — we can help seniors register online for the (Minnesota COVID-19) Vaccine Connector,” Knaffla said.

But navigating the various means by which to obtain a vaccine appointment can be dizzying, and without phone numbers available in some cases, less accessible, he noted.

“It’s really about trying to just break down those barriers,” Knaffla said. “ … It’s staying up to date on the most current changes or updates as to vaccination, because this is just a whole new thing for everybody.”

The services the center for independent living provides are free, funded in part by 1978 federal legislation to create the centers across the United States. Access North also provides a free pantry outside its Brainerd location on Northwest Fifth Street, filled with pandemic-related household supplies including disinfectant wipes and spray, hand sanitizer, masks, bleach, paper towels, and laundry and dish detergent.

A free pantry outside Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeast Minnesota in Brainerd contains items such as disinfecting spray and wipes, masks, hand sanitizer and paper towels. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
A free pantry outside Access North Center for Independent Living of Northeast Minnesota in Brainerd contains items such as disinfecting spray and wipes, masks, hand sanitizer and paper towels. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Knaffla said the work they do is important — not only during the pandemic, but at all times — in getting people the help they need while living on their own.

“I’m a strong advocate for the fact that, you know, at one point or another, almost every single individual in life is going to experience a disability, whether that be due to age or an accident happens,” he said. “It’s not the fact that they have a disability. It’s just they’re a person first.”

For more information on COVID Community Coordinators and to search for other organizations part of the program, visit health.state.mn.us/ccc.

Update on area COVID-19 numbers

The death of an 82nd Crow Wing County resident due to COVID-19 was reported by the Minnesota Department of Health Wednesday, March 3 — a woman in her 90s.

This brings the overall death toll attributed to the disease caused by the coronavirus to 282 in the seven-county region, including Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena.

New case growth continues to be incremental in the area, reflecting a statewide slowdown in recent months. Vaccination, meanwhile, is accelerating. Nearly one-quarter of Aitkin County’s residents have received at least one shot as of data posted Thursday, with those age 65 and older remaining the focus of providers. More than half of that age group in Aitkin, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs and Wadena counties are partly or fully vaccinated, with Morrison County nearing that mark at 49.9%. Todd County lags in that statistic at 44.4%.

COVID-19 data as of March 4

  • Aitkin — 1,191, with 33 deaths; as of Wednesday, Feb. 17, 3,834 residents have received at least one vaccine dose, representing 24.2% of the county’s population.

  • Cass — 2,207, with 24 deaths; 5,504 residents with at least one dose, 18.8%.

  • Crow Wing — 5,223, with 82 deaths; 11,807 residents with at least one dose, 18.4%.

  • Mille Lacs — 2,285, with 47 deaths; 4,498 residents with at least one dose, 17.4%.

  • Morrison — 3,256, with 46 deaths; 5,236 residents with at least one dose, 15.8%.

  • Todd — 2,489, with 30 deaths; 3,443 residents with at least one dose, 14.1%.

  • Wadena — 1,313, with 20 deaths; 2,363 residents with at least one dose, 17.3%.

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



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