Essentia's mobile vaccine team reaches those with access barriers

Andee Erickson, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·4 min read

Feb. 19—A couple dozen sisters of Duluth's St. Scholastica Monastery, and nearly as many staff members who work with them, received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday afternoon.

After, the sisters and staff signed cards for the Essentia Health nurses administering the vaccines as part of the health system's mobile vaccine unit intended to reach those who would otherwise experience access barriers.

Sister Beverly Raway, the prioress, hopes their vaccinations will allow the sisters to reunite soon with the sisters who live in the Benedictine Living Community, the assisted living facility next-door. Until that day comes, they'll continue taking all the usual precautions.

Sister Charity Nkewra said her interactions with the sisters in the assisted living facility has been limited to not much more than making snow angels outside their window and phone calls.

"One called to say, 'That was so nice,'" Nkewra said about the snow angels.

The monastery has lost six sisters — only one to COVID-19 — during the pandemic, Raway said. The hardship of those deaths was heightened because most didn't get the chance to visit their bedsides to say goodbye.

"We have a ritual of prayers for dying and farewell and blessing of the person as they're dying, laying our hands on them and praying," Raway said. "We have a really beautiful ritual. Only the administrative staff were able to do that."

The health system is in the process of hiring more staff to ramp up its vaccine capacity, said Jill Doberstein, Essentia's program manager for community outreach.

"People ask about our capacity to do outreach. It just really aligns with our mission and values to make sure we're reaching people," Doberstein said.

In the last couple months, the mobile vaccine team has largely focused on long-term care and assisted living facilities as well as behavioral health settings, per state guidelines, Doberstein said. In the coming weeks, the mobile unit will expand into neighborhoods to reach those ages 65 and older in underserved communities.

With help from community partners, Essentia's outreach team is planning events in Duluth's Hillside neighborhood and in West Duluth.

"Those community partners are valued relationships, trust relationships that can help with the vaccine hesitancy piece," Doberstein said.

Local public health, the state, regional health care coalitions and health care providers are in constant communication to determine where the need aligns with the current phase of the vaccinations.

Organizations with residents or clients who are eligible for a vaccine but have trouble getting to Essentia are encouraged to let the health system know by calling 833-933-0505 or by visiting essentiahealth.org/covid-19/covid-19-community-response-team.

The mobile vaccination team stemmed from Essentia's mobile testing team, Doberstein said. In July, they assembled a team of providers to offer on-site testing at places experiencing outbreaks. In November and December, the unit was testing about 2,500 people a week. Now it's testing less than half that number.

After completing her two-dose vaccine series, Sister Pauline Micke, 80, said she feels fortunate to have made it this far without an outbreak within her living community. That wasn't the case for the neighboring assisted living facility.

Asked how she's feeling now that the monastery has received both doses of the vaccine, Micke said she's eager to experience life outside of Zoom and video calls again.

"I made up a new prayer," Micke said. "I told God that when I die I'm planning on going to heaven. And I want it to be real heaven, not a virtual heaven. I want it to be real. I get so tired of Zoom meetings."

Sister JeAnne Weber, 78, reflected on the little moments that have carried them through the pandemic, like being able to attend chapel multiple times a day and waving at the camera to those watching from the assisted living facility. She said they haven't felt the loneliness and isolation many have suffered over the last year.

She longs for a day when the sisters in assisted living can return to shared meals, card games and Friday night movies and popcorn.

"Two of us sit at a dining room table together," Weber said. "One of the advantages is that we've gotten to know each other better, because we used to have like four sisters at a table. We're able to ... learn things that we never knew before because we just didn't have that opportunity."