A mobile COVID-19 vaccine bus will spend four days in Todd County as part of an effort to increase access and vaccination rates.

The bus will offer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine May 17-20 free of charge to anyone age 18 and older. People do not need to make an appointment and anyone is able to walk up to the bus and get vaccinated. No insurance or identification is needed. The bus has all the same equipment and cleanliness as a regular vaccination site, public health officials noted. Staff and volunteers will be at the event and can answer any questions before and during the bus visit.

The mobile vaccine bus will be at the following locations:

  • 2-8 p.m. May 17 at the Long Prairie Fire Department, 615 Lake St. S.;

  • 2-8 p.m. May 18 at the Clarissa Fire Department, 106 Highway 71 W.;

  • 2-8 p.m. May 19 at the Wayside Park in Bertha, at the intersection of Highway 71 and Second Street; and

  • 11 a.m.-5 p.m. May 20 at Ernie’s Food Market, 1230 U.S. Highway 10, Staples.

Those with questions may contact Todd County Health and Human Services at 320-732-4500.

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A flyer advertising the COVID-19 mobile vaccine clinic in Todd County, set to take place May 17-20. Submitted graphic
A flyer advertising the COVID-19 mobile vaccine clinic in Todd County, set to take place May 17-20. Submitted graphic

Katherine Mackedanz, community health manager at Todd County Health & Human Services, said she hopes the convenience of the mobile bus will encourage residents to get on board in a county with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. As of Thursday, Todd County reported 38% of its 16-plus population with at least one vaccine dose, placing it among the last five counties in the state to remain below 40%. Wilkin, Kanabec, Isanti and Benton counties are the others.

Mackedanz said they’re also working to provide food at the four sites selected for the bus.

“It’s our way of trying to get as many people out there as we can,” Mackedanz said during a phone interview Thursday, May 6. “We do think there’s a number of people in the county that, you know, we really hope to encourage this as a convenient option. … You just drive up, walk up, get on the bus. If you have any mobility issues, there’s a ramp to get on the bus. But if for any reason you can’t get on the bus, the nurses will come outside and give you a shot outside of the bus, too.”

Hesitance in Todd

Mackedanz said she believes there isn’t a single reason for why Todd County is lagging, but rather a combination of factors coming together. There are transportation barriers for some of those located in the more remote areas of the county, and few vaccination clinic options at night can make it challenging for those unable to find time away from work to get vaccinated.

The politicization of the coronavirus and the vaccine are also contributing to vaccine reluctance, Mackedanz said, noting people who consider themselves Democrats are about twice as likely to get vaccinated as those who identify as Republicans. Mackedanz said with Gov. Tim Walz’s Thursday announcement of plans to remove COVID-19 restrictions in the state by July or sooner, if a 70% vaccination rate is reached, this could serve as a motivating factor for some — particularly if it means removing the mask mandate.

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“Unfortunately, it’s gotten very politicized. I think just some time, and you know, conversations with medical providers and other trusted health professionals will help some of those people sort of decide, ‘Oh, it is a good idea to get vaccinated,’” Mackedanz said. “But I do think the mask mandate going away will definitely help. … I do wish he would have done it a little sooner, because I think that would have been a big selling point we could have had for the last month or so.”

Todd County is also home to a significant Amish and Mennonite population ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Generally speaking, Mackedanz said, this group tends to oppose vaccinations in general, not just the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, public health officials perform outreach to this population on a regular basis and particularly throughout the pandemic.

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A sizable Latino population — 6.8% of the county’s 24,644 people, based on the 2019 census population estimate — is another group to whom public health officials tailor services and messaging. A bilingual Todd County staff member assists in answering questions and providing information to what tends to be an overall younger group. Two major employers in the region — beef processing facility Long Prairie Packing Co. and Dan’s Prize, a Hormel meat processing company with two locations in Todd County — both hosted vaccination clinics on site, opening up vaccinations to family members of employees as well.

“I think right now we’re dealing with people that are on the fence. You know, we’ve kind of gone through the first wave of everyone who wants it has been able to get it, especially in Todd County,” Mackedanz said. “And now the second wave of how do we sort of make sure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce any barriers, and then also make it simple, convenient, for anyone who does want to get vaccinated. I think this bus will be about the best thing to provide that, because everyone will see it. It’ll be parked right on (U.S. Highway) 71 for three days.”

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More about the bus

The Minnesota Department of Health, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Metro Transit, the Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Department of Transportation partnered to bring mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinics to communities throughout the state of Minnesota. Metro Transit turned six underutilized transit buses into mobile vaccination clinics by removing seating and installing new equipment.

The mobile vaccination units are a highly targeted vaccine distribution strategy, intended to bring vaccines to people who would otherwise have a hard time getting vaccinated due to barriers, including transportation, technology and geographic barriers, the health department stated. State demographic data, vaccination data, testing data, and input from trusted community partners, local public health, and health department equity leadership is used to select locations. The first buses deployed April 19 and will continue to operate Monday through Thursday throughout the summer.

Update on cases

New cases of COVID-19 in the region are continuing to level off compared to an April spike in numbers.

The total number of active cases in Crow Wing County dropped to 211 as of Friday, and daily new cases remained in the teens or lower during five of the last seven days. A month earlier, daily figures were ticking upward and remained above 30 for the majority of the first two weeks of April.

New infections may be trending downward, but the number of those experiencing symptoms requiring hospitalization remains elevated in comparison to most of January through March. This week accounted for 11 new hospitalizations of Crow Wing County residents, compared to 14 a week earlier.

The state health department reported the deaths of two regional residents on Thursday and Friday: a Crow Wing resident, age 65-69 years old, and a Todd County resident, age 80-84.

COVID-19 data as of May 7

  • Aitkin — 1,334, with 36 deaths; 7,283 residents have received at least one vaccine dose, representing 54% of the county’s 16-plus population.

  • Cass — 2,669 with 28 deaths; 10,943 residents with at least one dose, 46%.

  • Crow Wing — 6,558, with 88 deaths; 26,784 residents with at least one dose, 52%.

  • Mille Lacs — 2,989, with 52 deaths; 10,884 residents with at least one dose, 53%.

  • Morrison — 4,154, with 60 deaths; 11,340 residents with at least one dose, 43%.

  • Todd — 2,791, with 32 deaths; 7,275 residents with at least one dose, 38%.

  • Wadena — 1,538, with 21 deaths; 4,842 residents with at least one dose, 46%.

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.