Wellness Wednesday: Minnesota COVID-19 vaccine spring update

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Woman in mask reacts to vaccine arrival.
Chief Administrative Officer Sam Hanson reacts as the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are unboxed at North Memorial Hospital on December 15, 2020 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
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Minnesota COVID-19 vaccine spring update
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This week, we wanted to get an update on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. I know a lot of us here in Minnesota are watching the news on that. I have Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health director of infectious disease epidemiology, with me this morning for Wellness Wednesday.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.

Jill Riley: We have been watching, you know, the rollout of the vaccine, I guess, how is the vaccine rollout going here in Minnesota?

Kris Ehresmann: Well, we've had exceptional interest on the part of the public to get vaccinated, which has been wonderful. And we started focusing on our most vulnerable populations. So that is our individuals in our skilled nursing facilities and in assisted living. In addition to health care workers, that was really the first group that was prioritized for vaccination. And mid-January, we added in individuals who are 65 and older, and then childcare and educators. And so we have continued for the last six weeks to work our way through those groups.

Adding 65-plus and educators and childcare was about 1.2 million people. So that was a lot of people to be to be added into the mix, given the limited number of doses that we're receiving. But we have really made good progress. And at the time that we're talking, over 40% of our seniors have been vaccinated. So we're continuing to work our way through. So I think the really positive [thing] is that we have multiple vaccinators, we have great interest. The not so positive is, we simply do not have enough vaccine to reach everyone right now who wants to be vaccinated.

Well, and I wonder about that timeline to getting people their shots. You know, it was over a few weeks ago, when we talked about the COVID-19 vaccine and just really kind of [talked] about it in a very general way of how it works. And so the Department of Health, I mean, do you feel pretty confident still in a timeline of kind of moving on to various groups and what it'll look like throughout the summer, or is really dependent on, you know, that supply? It would seem to me that things are changing so fast all the time, week to week.

So really, our ability to move on has to do with with two things. One is obviously the number of people who are interested in getting vaccinated. And as I said, we've been delighted that we have such a positive response. But then it's also dependent on the vaccine supply that we really receive. One of the good things is that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that will be a new vaccine, it's a single dose that will be added to the options that we have. So every time the vaccine supply increases, and we have more products available, that helps us to increase, you know, the number of people we can vaccinate, and that helps us to move on more quickly.

So, you know, we're very pleased about that. But yes, it's dependent on the number of people who want to get vaccinated and the doses that we have, and and that, thankfully, has been growing. But we can't say exactly that in a month, we expect to get X number of doses, because we don't have a good line of sight into that.

The last time we talked, we talked about the vaccine in a very general way. And you've mentioned that there is high interest here in Minnesota, that a lot of people, you know, want to know when is it going to be my turn, when will I be able to be vaccinated? And since we talked last, there, the Vaccine Connector has been launched. Can you talk about that a little bit? And should everybody sign up on the Vaccine Connector?

Yes, we would really encourage people to take advantage of that. The purpose of the Connector is just for us to have good insight into who's interested in being vaccinated. And then as different vaccine events become available, whether it's, you know, eligibility or vaccine at a mass state site or something like that, it's an opportunity to be able to reach out to individuals who are interested in being vaccinated.

Certainly, you know, if your healthcare provider reaches out to you and wants to set up an appointment, you know, you should take the appointment that you get from your healthcare provider. But the Connector is another way to make sure that we're getting people and vaccine doses connected.

I was just, you know, signing up on the Vaccine Connector. And, you know, I expected some questions about my age because I know that that will put me in a certain group, you know, in the timeline of people getting vaccinated, but there were some other demographic questions asked. How does the Health Department use that information?

We do ask some demographic questions: race, ethnicity, orientation, all of those things are intended to help us ensure that we are reaching out equitably to all populations. So that's really the intent of that is to help us in our work to want to be equitable in the vaccine distribution.

Sure, that makes sense. I think anybody who's been watching the news and paying attention, there's a lot of discussion about various variants of this coronavirus. And I guess the question is, will that call for a different vaccine?

Well, that is something that we are continuing to monitor. You know, we know that as the virus changes, that may change the ability of the vaccine to provide protection. However, the thinking is that it would not be, you know, an on/off situation. It would be perhaps a reduction in protection. So in other words, we're very fortunate that the two approved vaccines have a 95% effectiveness right now. And so with variants, it may be that we see that level of effectiveness drop, those are all things that are being evaluated at this point, to see, you know, if the vaccines continue to provide protection.

I think that's why we are continuing to say how important it is that people mask, socially distance, and avoid large crowds, because really, what allows for the spread of the variants and allows for the virus to mutate is the speed of transmission. So we have a lot of transmission going on. That means that there's a greater likelihood that we'll see spread of the variants. And there's also a greater likelihood that the virus itself could mutate again. And so that's why we're saying, you know what, hang on, hang tight, we will get vaccine into people, and that will help us address the issue of variants.

A good reminder about the masking. I mean, Dr. Anthony Fauci was just on CNN over the weekend. And, you know, he was giving the reminder that Americans should continue wearing masks and social distancing, even after getting the vaccine. And I'm sure that there there, there are questions about that, you know, just from people listening right now, it's like, well, I'm vaccinated, you know, aren't I protected? You know, what would you say to that?

Those are good questions. But it is really important to make the point that people who have been vaccinated still need to follow that guidance. I think, for a lot of people, it's like, oh, yeah, I happen to be a healthcare worker, I'm going to get vaccinated. And now I'm free to live my life as I always have. And there's a couple things there.

First of all, if you're a healthcare worker, you still need to quarantine if you've been exposed, even if you've been vaccinated, because of the high risk population that you serve. So certainly healthcare workers need to be attentive to that.

But we want to acknowledge, too, that there's still some information that we don't have about the vaccine. So while we know that it protects against clinical disease, we can't say right now, if it protects against asymptomatic disease. The reason for that is because the clinical trials were set up, they were focused on clinical diseases and outcome. And so because of that, we can't say that just because you've been vaccinated, you [won't] be a risk to other people. And you there's a potential that you could acquire asymptomatic disease and spread it. So that's why until we have more information and a greater proportion of the population vaccinated, everyone who has been vaccinated still needs to follow the guidelines.

Students and teachers returning to the classroom has been a big topic, a pretty hot topic, over the plan for going back to school. I mean, I know that educators, childcare workers are on the list of those that can be vaccinated.

Yes, they are. And we're continuing to work through that list and get those individuals vaccinated. So we're we're continuing to offer vaccine to those populations. The governor has expressed that he wants to see students back in school because of the very important role that school plays in their development and education. There is new guidance out from CDC, about you know, returning to the classroom and that guidance indicates that vaccination doesn't have to have happened for a return to the classroom. We are certainly prioritizing educators and childcare for vaccination. But yes, we expect that not everyone will have been vaccinated by the time that that kids are returning to school.


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