St. Louis County, Duluth hospitals expand vaccine eligibility

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

Mar. 11—Nearly 2 million Minnesotans became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, accelerating the vaccination timeline state officials had shared less than two weeks prior.

"It does really seem like we're moving along more quickly and we're moving into groups that are pretty big and broad," St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said. "I really do hope that we'll get to the general public much sooner than we initially thought."

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm indicated in a vaccine briefing Tuesday that the rest of the state's adults could be eligible for the vaccine by late April. Tiers 2 and 3 of Phase 1b are newly eligible for the vaccine, though the state's health department has asked vaccine providers to prioritize people in the second tier ahead of people in the third tier. She said the state could vaccinate the second tier of about 80,000 people in as little as 10 days.

People included in the second tier of Phase 1b:

— Food-processing plant workers;

— People who have specific underlying health conditions (sickle cell disease, Down syndrome, those in cancer treatment or immunocompromised from organ transplant, oxygen-dependent chronic lung and heart conditions);

— People with rare conditions or disabilities putting them at greater risk of severe illness.

People included in the third tier of Phase 1b:

— Minnesotans age 45 and older with one or more underlying medical conditions identified by the CDC (active cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, immunocompromised state from solid organ transplant, HIV, bone marrow disease, chronic steroids for more than 30 days, immunodeficiency disease or taking immunosuppressive medications.)

Minnesotans age 16 years and older with two or more underlying medical conditions.

Minnesotans age 50 years and older in multi-generational housing, meaning at least three generations.

Essential frontline workers: Agricultural, airport staff, additional child care workers not previously eligible, correctional settings, first responders, food production, food retail, food service, judicial system workers, manufacturing, public health workers, public transit and U.S. Postal Service workers.

People in the third tier should wait for messages from their employers, providers or Minnesota's vaccine connector to find out when they can schedule a vaccine appointment, Malcolm said. Those who haven't yet signed up for the state's Vaccine Connector are urged to do so as it helps Minnesotans find out where, when and how to sign up for a vaccine. To sign up, visit mn.gov/vaccineconnector or call 833-431-2053.

The state expanded eligibility in anticipation of reaching its goal this week of vaccinating 70% of people age 65 and older. St. Louis County's public health division was no longer seeing as great of a demand for that age group, Westbrook said. Those overseeing the vaccine rollout at the Duluth-based health care systems, Essentia Health and St. Luke's, also said that.

All said they anticipate the newly eligible groups will quickly make up the bulk of their vaccine appointments, and that they will prioritize appointments for people in any of the previous vaccine groups, including Phage 1a. Thrifty White and Walmart pharmacies across the region that are participating in the federal retail pharmacy program have also expanded their eligibility to include all new groups.

St. Louis County is in the process of creating a webpage that allows people to easily schedule their own appointments. The county has five vaccine clinics around the state. They are located in Ely, Duluth, Hermantown, Hibbing and Eveleth. County public health also does mobile vaccine clinics to reach those with access barriers.

PREVIOUSLY St. Louis County strives to vaccinate all groups of people

Westbrook said the county is in the process of reaching out to some of the groups in the broader essential worker category, like U.S. Postal Service workers and those working in correctional settings.

"But then we're also creating a way for anybody in these essential worker groups to be able to either connect with us from our website, which is preferable, or to connect with us from our vaccine scheduling line," Westbrook said. "We're really targeting our efforts to those essential workers who are defined by their occupation and it's much easier for us to reach out to those groups."

Ideally, she said, those with underlying health conditions should receive their vaccines through the health system, especially if they have chronic conditions.

St. Louis County Public Health and Essentia Health both began vaccinating newly eligible people on Wednesday. St. Luke's in Duluth begins Thursday.

Essentia Health and St. Luke's are both notifying eligible people and scheduling appointments through their online portals.

Roseann Hinns, pharmacist and senior operations manager for medication use management at Essentia Health in Duluth, said the health system is focusing on people with underlying health conditions, but is not excluding employee groups from its outreach efforts.

If a patient's occupation is listed in their records and they're eligible for a vaccine because of it, they'll still be notified to make an appointment, Hinns said. The health system will also continue to use its mobile vaccine clinic and will likely use it to help vaccinate employee groups with access barriers.

Essentia is using a randomization process to schedule eligible patients.

While eligible St. Luke's patients can schedule appointments as supply allows, Mike Boeselager, the vice president of support service at St. Luke's in Duluth, said staff are also calling people who aren't patients but are at greater risk of developing severe illness or who experience access barriers.

For example, Boeselager said Health Equity Northland — a Duluth-based group that assesses the needs of the Northland African Heritage community and aims to increase community understanding surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines — provided St. Luke's with a list of names and contacts of people to call.

"We don't feel like we should be putting our patients ahead of everybody else we want to sort of equalize that," he said. "We're collaborating with regional partners and so we feel that this is really a regional effort and we want to make sure that everyone has equal access."

"It's great news overall," Boeselager said of the expanded eligibility.