For the last year, Wright County Public Health has been on the front line in the battle against COVID-19. From the preparation more than a year ago to the launching of mass vaccination sites earlier this year, Public Health and several other county departments have worked together to get vaccines into the arms of Wright County residents.
COVID-19 has been the first mass vaccinations since H1N1 a decade earlier. The planning started around Christmas to find a location where social distancing could be practiced. To date, Wright County Public Health has delivered more than 8,000 vaccine doses with thousands more expected in the coming weeks and months.
“We were troubleshooting locations we could use in January,” said Jon Young, emergency preparedness manager in Wright County Public Health. “We were going to need a location that had indoor heat and vaccinate large numbers of people. We looked at fire departments, schools and other facilities. Then the concept of the drive-thru option came up.”
Wright County Risk Manager Tim Dahl said the primary location needed to be large enough to handle vehicle traffic to execute the drive-thru option and the Wright County Highway Department Building became the prime choice.
“The Highway Building was chosen because of its size,” Dahl said. “We’re able to have people stay in their cars and drive through. It gets cars off the main roads and allows them to stay safe and social distance. Given the numbers of people that are being vaccinated, this looked like the best option to get the numbers of people vaccinated while still maintaining safety protocols.”
The issues of COVID-19 required a facility as massive as the highway shop because of the new wrinkle the pandemic brought – social distancing. Keeping people six feet apart effectively took away the mass walk-up options available during H1N1 – where 2,600 people were vaccinated in a single day at one location.
“This has been unique because in past mass vaccination campaigns we didn’t have the physical distancing piece with it,” Young said. “That’s what made the Highway Building a good option. By keeping people in their vehicles, we could keep them physically distanced from others and still do them in large numbers.”
Much of the work has been done on the fly and has required cooperation. Wright County gets a weekly allocation of vaccine doses from the Minnesota Department of Health that needs to be used up within a matter of days. To coordinate such a massive operation has required many county employees and departments to collaborate to get the job done.
“The cooperation we’ve received has been wonderful,” Young said. “From administration to the Highway Department to the Sheriff’s Office, it’s been a good county collaborative. We’ve been doing this since January, so it’s getting pretty routine now. Everyone has a job to do and knows how to it.”
Public Health can administer between 400 and 600 vaccinations a day and the Highway Building clinic is averaging more than 1,000 doses a week with the twice-a-week mass vaccinations – typically second doses on Tuesdays and first doses on Thursdays. There have been 19 clinic days at the Highway Building and 26 total clinic days, including three mass vaccinations at the St. Michael-Albertville High School, where up to 1,400 people got vaccinated in a single clinic – requiring a group approach.
“We’ve had staff from other departments working with us,” said Public Health Planner Joel Torkelson. “Everybody is stepping in to help us when they can. Public Health is the lead on this, but we have a lot of others coordinating with us to get these clinics accomplished.”
Wright County Public Health is beginning to see the light at the end of the yearlong-plus cloud of COVID-19, but much work remains as vaccination increases are coinciding with a surge in the number of new variant cases.
“The pandemic is a public health emergency,” Young said. “For us to get out of this pandemic, we strongly believe when we get a high proportion of our population vaccinated, we will put an end to this pandemic. It’s all hands on deck right now. The entire department is part of the vaccination response.”
The mass vaccinations are likely to continue full steam ahead through at least Memorial Day Weekend as more vaccines become available and more people get their COVID shots. Young said that Wright County’s method of mass-immunizing its residents is being noticed and will likely be copied.
“What we’re doing here at the Highway Building may become the model that gets used around the state and around the country,” Young said. “We’ve received a lot of phone calls from other counties and had people stop in to take a look at what we’re doing to see if they can do something similar in their county. We’ve heard a lot of good feedback about what we’re doing here.”
Another positive for county residents is that the plan for those getting the two-shot Moderna vaccine will be able to get both at the same location.
“Everyone who gets their first dose from us are able to get in for a second dose,” Public Health Nurse Ellie Vanasse said. “About three-and-half weeks after they get their first dose from us, people will get an email from us with registration link to get their second. We try to get everyone in between four and six weeks of their first dose to get their second dose.”
As of this week, nearly 40 percent of Wright County residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Young said he expects a high percentage of Wright County residents to get the vaccine, but said that hasn’t been the case in other parts of the state, where some counties have received reduced supplies of the vaccine because of their inability to use up all the doses they receive.
“There are counties to the north of us where there are quite a few people saying they’re not interested in the vaccine,” Young said. “They’re getting vaccine hesitancy and some of those counties are getting the vaccine and they’re not able to get it all out. We’re not having that yet in Wright County. There is still have a high interest in the vaccine, but we’re hearing that from other counties.”
Wright County has many residents who haven’t signed up to get their vaccine yet, but Vanasse said it isn’t that some of them aren’t going to get the vaccine. They’re just taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Not everyone who hasn’t shown an interest in getting the vaccine isn’t going to get it at some point,” Vanasse said. “There are people who are just waiting. They want to see how other people react to it and, if they have friends or family members who get the vaccine with no side effects they will eventually get it when they know people who’ve got the vaccine and are fine.”
While there are encouraging forecasts that, at the current rate of immunization, the threat of COVID-19 can be greatly reduced by mid-summer, Wright County Public Health is going to continue to administer as many doses as necessary to help Wright County get back to some sense of normalcy from the longest pandemic of our lifetimes.
“This has been unprecedented,” Young said. “We’re 14 months into this and there are still a lot of unknowns. All we can do in Wright County is keep doing our part to get people vaccinated to try to protect them from getting the worst symptoms COVID-19 brings. As long as it’s still around and people still need to get vaccinated, we’ll be keeping our clinics up and running until everybody who wants a shot can get one.”