By Kathryn Helwig
Frustrations surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine continue to rise, particularly about the COVID-19 vaccination program implemented by the Minnesota Department of Health over the past few weeks. According to the MDH website, Minnesota continues to receive around 60,000 doses of vaccine per week, approximately just 1% of the supply needed to vaccinate the state’s population, despite promises from the federal government that more is coming.
“We want to get people vaccinated,” said Houston County Public Health Director John Pugleasa, noting that they receive phone calls every day from people who desperately want the vaccine. “It’s gut-wrenching to hear these stories, our desire isn’t to delay this, we just don’t have the vaccine available.”
Fillmore County Public Health Educator Brenda Leigh Pohlman adds, “We currently cannot vaccinate everyone we would love to vaccinate… please have a really good sense of patience.”
Currently much of the state is still in phase 1a, with plans to move into phase 1b soon. The details surrounding who will be included in phase 1b is yet to be announced however. As of January 27 a total of 3,975 people in Fillmore and Houston counties had received at least one dose of the two dose vaccine, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
While vaccine eligibility relies largely on the Minnesota Department of Health vaccination plan, the ability to be placed on waitlists to receive the vaccine depends largely on where you reside and what your local county health department is doing.
Fillmore County Public Health is launching a program for people over age 65 to register for the vaccine, effective this week. More details on this program will be available on the Fillmore County Public Health website and Facebook pages as they become available. This program will feature a “Fillmore County COVID-19 Vaccination Request Form for People Age 65+” which will enable people age 65 years and older to register for the vaccine. Once the form is submitted, Fillmore County Public Health staff will be able to schedule vaccination appointments. For community members who do not have internet access, there will be a phone number to call. Currently a COVID-19 Hotline is available to call at (507) 765-2642 for any questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The public is encouraged to utilize the Fillmore County Public Health website www.co.fillmore.mn.us/departments/community_services/public_health/index.php to find information related to the vaccination program prior to calling; additionally, walk-ins for the vaccine are not currently accepted.
“It’s heartbreaking when we have to turn people away,” says Pohlman, “eventually we will get everyone vaccinated, but right now we have a limited number of vaccines and staff available to administer vaccinations.”
Houston County Public Health is currently taking names for a waitlist to receive the vaccine. In order to be added to the waitlist, residents are being asked to complete a HIPAA secure form on their website www.co.houston.mn.us/departments/public-health. Currently only those who live in Houston County are eligible to be placed on the county’s waitlist, however they may need to travel to a neighboring county in order to get the vaccine, says Pugleasa. If someone signs up for the Houston County waitlist that does not reside in Houston County, staff will not be following up with them – instead their name will be removed from the list.
At this time the only way to get on the waitlist for Houston County is through their website. “If you do not have a computer or email, find someone who can help you,” says Pugleasa, “all of the initial scheduling will be done via email.”
For those that don’t live in a county that is currently taking names for a waitlist, their other option to receive the vaccine is through their healthcare provider. Barb Sorensen from Olmsted Medical Center (OMC) says that as their patients become eligible to receive the vaccine, they will be contacted through their patient portal or OMC MyChart. OMC patients who are not currently registered for an online portal are highly encouraged to do so.
Information on the OMC website confirms that frustrations surrounding the Minnesota Vaccination Program are felt in more than just members of the public. Recently, the State of Minnesota introduced a new vaccination plan, telling healthcare organizations that they are to begin vaccinating people 65 years of age and older as they complete phase 1a of the vaccinations, as long as they have enough supply of the vaccine. OMC claims they do not have an adequate supply of the vaccine to do this, however.
Gundersen Health System and Winneshiek Medical Center did not respond to our request for inquiry.
Additionally, the State of Minnesota recently began a pilot for community-based vaccinations in nine locations throughout the state. People who are eligible in the state’s new plan signed up online or by phone call and placed into a lottery system to receive the vaccine. “We have no reason to believe that this is the way the vaccine will continue to be distributed,” says Pugleasa.
Pugleasa encourages members of the public to get on all available waiting lists that they are eligible for and to take the first date you are offered, whether it is through the county or a clinic. It’s a slow moving process, but one he hopes will only increase in efficiency as time goes on “we haven’t ever tried to vaccinate our entire population… and we aren’t even a month into it. Be patient, vaccination is our way out of this.”