Wellness Wednesday: The continuing importance of vaccination

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COVID numbers, vaccines, masks: very top-of-mind right now. I thought it would be a good time to bring back Kris Ehresmann as she is the Minnesota Department of Health director of infectious disease epidemiology.

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. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: Well, it feels like things are changing week to week at this point. In fact, it feels like things are changing day to day at this point as far as the pandemic, so I thought we could just start with: how are vaccine numbers and COVID cases going here in Minnesota?

Kris Ehresmann: Good news on both fronts when we look at the number of COVID cases that we're seeing — and we had been very concerned in March and April, because we saw our case numbers go up and we were concerned that we might see a similar sudden increase, like we saw in November, but what we're seeing is that our rate of new cases has continued to decrease. So our case numbers are really dropping off; we dropped off by 29% over the last week. We've also seen that in our test positivity rate. So in other words, the proportion of people who get tested, what percent of them are testing positive. And that has also decreased to 4.2%. So that means we're below that 5% level of concern. And along with that, we've seen some good steady declines in hospitalization and ICU admission.

So when it comes to what's happening with COVID disease, we're seeing some positive things, and I think that we can say that that is directly related to the positive things that we're seeing related to vaccination. At this point, we've had 63.6% of Minnesotans who are 16 and older who've gotten at least one dose of vaccine, and 57% of people 16 and older have completed the series. Now, we definitely have a ways to go, we haven't reached vaccine nirvana. The governor, one of the points that he's made is, the first goal we want to hit is 70% coverage, and so we're working there.

So we're seeing some positive information [and] increases related to vaccination. And that's very much linked to the reductions in disease. But I will say this, that our incremental increases in vaccination coverage have slowed down. And so while it's expected, it's a little concerning, and we want to make sure that people are still taking advantage of the vaccine.

I just saw the news this week that Moderna has released some preliminary findings based on testing 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. It looks like they're going to be submitting those data to the Food and Drug Administration, so that sounds like more good news.

Yes, I mean, the fact that we can now vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds with Pfizer is great. And there's been a wonderful uptake. 20% of that population has already sought their first dose of vaccine, and it's only been a little over a week. So that's been really great. And the more products that we have that are available, that can be given across the age spectrum, that's really wonderful.

We talk a lot about variants, they have the potential to kind of change the course of how the pandemic goes. But we've seen some really positive news there as well, that vaccines have been shown to be effective against some of the newly identified barriers. So there's there's a lot of good news related to the the effective work of vaccines, our deaths and long-term care effects: our cases [among] long-term care residents have dropped off. We've been part of, in Minnesota, some studies of health care workers and [we're] seeing just how effective the vaccines are at reducing symptomatic illness. So lots of really positive news related to vaccines.

The CDC gave some new guidance about masking; then in turn, the governor lifted the mask mandate across the state. Now, some individual cities still have a mask mandate. I know maybe there was a little confusion about it. I was watching the press conference the day of that announcement, and I remember Jan Malcolm seemed almost a little bit surprised by that news.

Definitely. I have to acknowledge that. We had no forewarning at all that was happening. We heard about it about the same time you were hearing about it. So yes, it did catch us by surprise. And I think the thing that was challenging about that announcement was just the fact that operationalizing such a thing is really tough. So it's fine to acknowledge that the vaccines are very effective. And because of that effectiveness, people who are vaccinated may not need to mask, that's great. But in a community where, you know, you're still not at high, high levels of vaccine coverage, all of a sudden, it gets really difficult if you keep with your mask mandates, and someone says, oh, I'm vaccinated, I don't need to wear a mask...how do you really validate or enforce that? It really put us in a really challenging place operationally.

But yes, I think that we feel that at the place that we're at, there is still value in masking. And I certainly say it is never wrong to mask: we do recognize that there are many people who will continue to mask because, for instance, they may have an immuno-compromising condition that may put them, you know, in a place where they're not sure about their vaccine protection. So we need to recognize that people may choose to mask and we absolutely support that.

Do you think that lifting the mask mandate has contributed to the slowdown of people being vaccinated?

Certainly, we had thought that that would help as an incentive for us collectively to state the place that we're at now with vaccination is a place that we kind of expected to be. We've gotten all the eager beavers vaccinated; those are the people that were willing to drive three hours across the state to get vaccinated. And now we're kind of in this phase where we've got people who would be willing to get vaccinated, but man, they can't get time off of work, or, you know, their schedule doesn't allow it, or it's got to be really convenient for them. And so we've tried to change our response and say, you know, instead of having these big, centralized mass vaccination sites, let's start focusing on smaller, more targeted vaccination efforts. Let's make sure providers are giving an offering vaccine when you come into your doctor's office, all of those things. But that necessarily means that we aren't vaccinating, you know, thousands and thousands of people a day. It's both the time to find people and to kind of get them vaccinated. So it has slowed down our progress. So yeah, we're in a in a different place where each 10th of a percent that we go up is is a victory.

Yeah, that makes sense. I was one of those eager beavers — but I fortunately for me, I was able to get an appointment locally. At this point, should people still get the vaccine?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we want to encourage people to continue to take advantage of vaccination. We've got three effective vaccines. If you've got kids, the Pfizer vaccine can be given down through age 12. Now we have the the Johnson and Johnson vaccine; that's a once and done shot. So yes, definitely people should go get vaccinated. We are not in a place where we've reached any kind of population coverage nirvana, so it still is very important that people get vaccinated.

I think there are some who may have kind of waited maybe for the convenience factor or waited to see like, how is this vaccine gonna affect other people? Or maybe just at that point of having pandemic fatigue, where it's like, "Oh, well, numbers are going down, it probably seems fine." What would you say to those people who may think we're in the clear?

Yeah, I mean, certainly our numbers are positive right now, and that's wonderful — [but] the virus is still circulating globally. And so you know, it has the potential to come back at anytime it wants: all it needs are susceptible individuals. So our goal is to reduce that number of susceptible people as much as possible, and we do that by vaccinating. But after the peak in November, we have had some time where we've had some natural immunity in the population too, but CDC estimates that lasts about 90 days. So, you know, that is going to wane as well. So people who think, you know, I've had COVID, I should be just fine. No, they they need to be vaccinated as well. So just kind of putting in perspective: until we have really, really high vaccination levels, the virus is continuing to circulate globally. It's continuing to mutate, and so we do need to continue to be careful and get vaccinated. I think that's really the best tool that we have to try and crush this virus.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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