Panel: Vaccinations will remain key to curbing COVID-19 in rural Minnesota

Mar. 13—MANKATO — If COVID-19 takes on a seasonal pattern, vaccinations will be crucial long-term tools in preventing surges in rural areas, said medical experts during a panel discussion last week.

The virtual event on Thursday, hosted by the Center for Rural Policy & Development and the COVID Collaborative, brought a Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist together with rural health care leaders. They discussed the unique COVID-19 challenges rural Minnesota could face as the state approaches the endemic phase of the disease.

One of the challenges? Lower vaccination uptake in rural areas.

The combination of vaccinations and the omicron variant giving people immunity through infection puts the state in a fairly strong place in the short-term, said Dr. John O'Horo, infectious disease specialist at Rochester's Mayo Clinic. With viruses come new variants, though, giving him concern about what fall 2022 and winter 2023 will bring.

Drastically different variants, like omicron and delta, could arise and cause problems if vaccination rates aren't strong.

"It's going to be crucial that we reach out to make sure our vaccine rates are high enough that once we have that combination or new variants and waning immunity we can be in a stronger place going into the fall and winter," he said.

Minnesota's rural areas generally lag behind the metro region in vaccination rates.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the two most populous in the state, have 53% and 50% of their residents up to date on vaccinations — meaning people received their primary series plus a booster. The statewide average is 45.8%, and none of the nine counties in south-central Minnesota are above that mark.

Nicollet County comes the closest with 45.4% of its residents having up-to-date vaccinations. Blue Earth County is at 39.6%, while Sibley County has the lowest rate in the region at 35.1%.

COVID-19 will reach the endemic threshold in the coming months, O'Horo said. Endemic doesn't mean the end of COVID-19, but rather a transition into the disease staying within manageable levels.

With rural areas having fewer health care resources, lower vaccination rates could be a recipe for surges placing undue burdens on hospitals and clinics. Health care providers from Roseau, Big Lake and Onamia spoke during the panel about the strains their facilities dealt with because of COVID-19 surges.

Unvaccinated Minnesotans are much more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than vaccinated Minnesotans. Breakthrough data from the Minnesota Department of Health showed the COVID-19 hospitalization rate among vaccinated residents age 65 or older was about 18 per 100,000 people, compared to 176 per 100,000 people among the unvaccinated. Disparities are also evidence among younger age groups.

Clinics and county public health agencies continue to provide COVID-19 vaccines to patients and residents, including Blue Earth County Public Health on Thursdays from 1-4 p.m. Jenna Kuduk, a registered nurse and the health services director at the Mille Lacs Band's Ne-la-Shing Clinic in Onamia, said every vaccine clinic she helps organize has a few more people coming through the door.

"They're coming through at their own pace, and that's OK," she said. "The more and more information we get out there, maybe it's helping people decide to get the vaccine."

Vaccine providers should keep working to understand the reasons hesitant people haven't sought vaccines yet, O'Horo said. Some people just aren't going to get vaccinated, while others truly want more information before they get it, so the best approach is to offer them more information.

"We have a lot more experience now than we did six months ago," he said. "And in another six months we'll have even more."

Each person who gets vaccinated is unlikely to end up in a hospital's intensive care unit with COVID-19. Someone who needs that ICU bed for other reasons, meanwhile, is less likely to be transferred farther from home.

For that reason and others, O'Horo said each vaccination makes a difference.

"Every individual who is being convinced to get vaccinated is a win," he said. "Especially if that makes them more likely to get vaccinated in the future as we look toward seasonal re-vaccination needs."

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