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Local officials prepare for arrival of 1st COVID-19 vaccine doses

Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center will soon have the capability of storing the doses at the super cold temperatures required for Pfizer’s vaccine — the first of several ultimately expected to be available.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

Nine months after the first direct impacts of the pandemic were felt in the lakes area, Crow Wing County officials expect it will be less than three weeks from now before the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive.

Identified as one of 25 hub sites in the state by Gov. Tim Walz earlier this week, Brainerd will receive the vaccine directly from the national supply chain. This is because Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center will soon have the capability of storing the doses at the super cold temperatures required for Pfizer’s vaccine — the first of several ultimately expected to be available.

From there, doses will be delivered to regional health care providers, including Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby and Lakewood Health System in Staples, among others. Top priority for the first round of doses, state officials reported, are those most susceptible to serious COVID-19 complications in skilled nursing facilities and other congregate care, along with those who care for them. Once the first dose is administered, a second dose is required about a month later, and then it’s another two weeks before people are believed to have the maximum protection against the virus.


While this coronavirus is novel and the vaccines developed to tame it are new, preparations underway by county public health staff are anything but.
“It’s just a different virus than the other ones that we’ve already worked with,” said Michelle Moritz, public health supervisor with Crow Wing County, during a Thursday, Dec. 10 interview. “… Fortunately, it’s something that we have spent the last 20-some years preparing for as we have had people much smarter than me telling us that this was coming. So I know it’s been at least 16 years that I’ve worked on pandemic preparedness and in 20 years of working for public health, it’s something that we’ve talked about since Day One.”


Bridge of Hope - Moritz.jpg
Michelle Moritz

Moritz previously took part in vaccination efforts in response to the H1N1 pandemic, and while much of the framework remains the same, the major difference this time is how much more contagious COVID-19 is. H1N1 vaccines were distributed in large-scale, gymnasium-like clinic settings, she said, without social distancing or face masks.

“That is not something that we’re talking about right now or for the foreseeable future,” Moritz said. “We’re talking about doing this as safe as we can to not spread the virus amongst our workers at these clinics and amongst the people that are coming to us to be vaccinated. Social distancing is going to be very, very key in keeping our workers healthy during this work.”

Moritz said beyond coordinating distribution, public health workers will also be ready to assist with administering the vaccine within congregate care facilities as needed. While earlier this year, Moritz discussed with county commissioners plans to acquire needles and syringes, she said they’ve since learned the federal government will provide this basic equipment along with alcohol wipes. But using grant funds provided as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the county did purchase other items needed to give vaccines. This includes sharps containers, bandages and cotton balls, for example.

“Those pieces we have been purchasing and have on hand and we will continue to need to restock as we move through this pandemic,” Moritz said.

So how much of Minnesota’s vaccine allotment will come to Crow Wing County? Distribution will be based on many factors, Moritz said, including population in future rounds of vaccination. The early doses, however, will be distributed directly to the target populations and those who care for them.

“Crow Wing Public Health has been working with these agencies to collect staffing and resident numbers to provide to the regional health care coalition and Minnesota Department of Health,” Moritz reported in an email. “Vaccine order processing is directed by the state based on these numbers and the locations’ readiness to receive the vaccine and the population they plan to vaccinate.”


With the Pfizer vaccine clearing a major hurdle Thursday by receiving emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, does that mean a return to normalcy in everyday life is on the docket? Hopefully, said County Administrator Tim Houle, but it’s impossible to know just how much longer it will take to attain.

Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle

A number of challenges remain, including the fact there are not nearly enough doses at this point to vaccinate every American and there likely won’t be until well into next year. But the vaccine should be celebrated as a positive step in the right direction, Houle said, and especially for the fact they’ve been developed faster than ever before while taking no shortcuts in clinical trials. Both the Pfizer vaccine as well as one developed by Moderna — likely the next vaccine to roll out for distribution in the U.S. — showed as high as 95% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19, according to the pharmaceutical companies.

“This is the first time, I think, we’ve been able to actually have a conversation about a vaccine that we believe is going to be highly effective against this particular pandemic,” Houle said. “And that really is a glimmer of hope in our community. … Yes, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Finally, we can see a light.”

However, Houle said it’s important for people to realize the need for social distancing, face masks and good hand hygiene will persist for the near future.

“The other part of this is patience, because we know we’re not out of this yet. And if we don’t still maintain what we know works … then we also know that we will have more illness in our community, we will have more deaths in our community, and that we will have more disruptions in our community,” Houle said. “ … If we want the economy to get back to where we want it to be — and all of us want to return to normal — the way to return to normal the fastest is to get immunized and to continue our safety practices until we have so many people immunized that the disease cannot take hold anymore.”

Knowing there is vaccine skepticism abound, Crow Wing County will seek to play a significant role in ensuring people have the most accurate information about the vaccine, Houle said. This includes combating misinformation on the county’s Facebook page and providing links to scientifically sound information.


“From our vantage point, the science on vaccines is a central question,” he said. “There’s no question you could find a practitioner in any occupation who is an outlier. That does not change the fact that the overwhelming evidence, the scientific evidence that we have that is settled is that vaccines work.”

Frequently asked questions

What is known about the vaccines?

  • Both Pfizer and Moderna indicated efficacy of 95%. Both must meet strict and existing safety standards.

  • COVID-19 vaccines went through the same rigorous clinical trials other vaccines go through. Steps were taken allowing the process to be more efficient, such as being able to make the vaccine while it’s still going through trials so it’s ready if it is approved. Vaccines will only be used if they get the sign off from national expert advisory groups that review vaccine data like this all the time.

  • With these two vaccines, people will need two doses about a month apart for full protection. They will need to get the same vaccine for both doses. After that second dose, it will also take about two weeks for the body to build up protection, so it’s about six weeks total from the first vaccine to when protection exists.

  • Initially these vaccines will be for adults only because more data is needed on the use in children. Additional trials are coming to determine how the vaccines may work for those younger age groups.

  • The vaccine will not be required or mandated.

When will the vaccine be in Minnesota?

  • Ultimately, all Minnesotans will have an opportunity to be vaccinated. It just won’t be right away for everyone.

  • The vaccine will be rolled out in a phased approach. This is because there will be a limited number of doses available initially. More doses will continuously be made and distributed, but state officials cautioned it will all take time and be a fluid situation.

  • Moving from one phase to the next will be determined by vaccine supply and uptake, so firm dates are not available for when one phase will end and another will begin.

How much vaccine will Minnesota get?

  • The state will get the vaccine in batches based on population.

Who will get the vaccine first?

  • We know that especially in the earliest weeks of vaccine distribution there will not be nearly enough to meet demand for the groups identified as top priorities in the first phase.

  • The National Academies of Science released a report on a framework for equitable allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine. With that guidance in mind, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice made recommendations for priority groups who should receive early limited doses.

  • For Phase 1A, the first phase, they said health care personnel and long-term care residents should be included. There are no final decisions on the rest of the phases yet, but in general, state officials expect Phase 1B to consist of essential workers, and Phase 1C to consist of persons with high-risk medical conditions and persons 65 years of age and older.

How will the vaccine be distributed?

  • Initial vaccines will be given in closed settings with the state bringing the vaccine to the priority groups.

  • This means there’s not a “list” Minnesotans need to get on to get the vaccine. Since phase 1A is based on employment and place of residence, people eligible for this category will be contacted by their employer or the facility where they live to let them know when the vaccine is available to them.

  • In later phases, the vaccine will be available at settings like pharmacies or primary care providers, and people will be able to make an appointment to get it.

For more information on Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, visit https://bit.ly/3n73JLu .

Source: Minnesota Governor’s Office.


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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