The COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues in St. Louis County, where 80 percent of the allocated doses have been administered and health officials are expecting 500 more to arrive this week.

Amy Westbrook, director of the county’s Public Health Division, told the county board Tuesday morning that county officials received 1,000 doses of the vaccine and have used 800 among the public health system, health care facilities and pharmacy networks.

The county follows Minnesota Department of Health guidelines for rolling out the vaccine through phases, beginning with the highest risk groups of frontline health care workers and long-term care residents. The recommendations focus on impacting the morbidity and mortality rate of the coronavirus, which has had profound impacts on the vulnerable older adults and at times stressed the state’s hospital capacity.

Westbrook noted that recommendations for who fits under the first phase of the vaccination rollout “continue to evolve slightly” but broadly targets essential workers and people over 75 years old. “There’s still a lot of questions about Phase 1B … those guidelines and recommendations are still in development from the federal government.”

St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle of Duluth questioned Westbrook whether teachers, who are currently not included in the first phase of vaccinations, will be added to an earlier vaccination group. Westbrook said teachers are a discussion point at the state level.

“I think it's very pertinent we have our teachers immunized,” Boyle said, pointing to school districts returning to the classroom soon after months in distance learning. “It would be such a constant which has been missing in our school districts.”

In neighboring Itasca County, public health officials continue to move through the vaccine phases at the local level, noting a high demand but no exact timelines for the further release of vaccinations.

Overall, St. Louis and Itasca counties reported COVID-19 transmission has declined on the local level since peak rates in November, mirroring statewide trends. Westbrook noted the state has identified five cases of a new strain of COVID-19, but added that available vaccines are effective against it and prevention guidelines have not changed.

Across the state, 1,355 news coronavirus cases were reported Tuesday with 42 in St. Louis County and six in Itasca County. The statewide positivity rate, a key measure for public health officials, sat at 5.6 percent on Tuesday.

“We are so close to widespread vaccination, but it’s going to take time. It is essential that we keep our guards up, wear our masks, keep our physical distance and still avoid gathering,” said Kelly Chandler, Itasca County Public Health division manager. “The heartbreak continues to be real. Loved ones still are getting very sick, and if we lose our focus we could be facing the kinds of disastrous spreads other regions are seeing.”

State launches database

Earlier on Tuesday, the Walz-Flanagan administration announced the launching of a public vaccine data dashboard “to detail the progress of COVID-19 vaccine allocation, distribution and administration across Minnesota.”

Created by the state’s health and IT agencies, the daily updated dashboard includes information on the number of doses given to the state by the federal government, shipped to medical providers and administered to individuals.

As of the morning, the Centers for Control and Prevention promised 541,000 doses of COVID-19 to the state. At least 329,450 doses have been shipped to providers, in addition to 100,500 doses to pharmacies in partnership with the CDC and Pharmacy Partnership Program for vaccination in long-term care settings.

More than 140,000 Minnesotans have already received at least one dose of vaccine. About 7,000 have completed their vaccination series.

“We are committed to ensuring Minnesotans know how much vaccine is coming to our state and how many of our neighbors are receiving their shots when it’s their turn,” said Jan Malcom, commissioner of the Minnesota Health Department, in a statement. “Transparency is a cornerstone principle of our vaccine rollout. We are pleased to provide Minnesotans with this vital information as the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter.”

Tarek Tomes, commissioner of the state’s IT services, added,“This dashboard provides Minnesotans with transparency and promotes confidence that COVID-19 vaccine doses are consistently arriving in Minnesota, and shots are going in the arms of our health care workers and most vulnerable family and friends. It will help Minnesotans visualize our progress toward ending this pandemic for good.”

The dashboard showed on Tuesday morning that St. Louis County reported that 4 percent of its 200,080 residents received at least a dose of a vaccine. About 8,020 people received one dose of a vaccine while 608 completed their vaccination series.

Out of the people who received a dose, more than 66 percent were females and over 56 percent were between the ages of 18 and 49 — populations most likely found in the regional health care workforce among the priority to receive vaccinations in the early months of 2021.

The state’s new dashboard can be found at https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/data.

New federal guidelines

The Trump administration unexpectedly shifted gears Tuesday to speed the delivery of COVID-19 vaccination shots. A slow start had triggered widespread concern from states and public health officials.

Now, Health and Human Services Alex Azar has announced two major changes. First, the government will no longer hold back required second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, practically doubling supply. Second, states should immediately start vaccinating other groups lower down the priority scale, including people age 65 and older, and younger people with certain health problems.

The moves better align the outgoing administration with the incoming Biden-Harris team. On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden said he will rapidly release most available vaccine doses to protect more people, according to the Associated Press. Biden said he supported immediately releasing vaccines that health authorities were holding back out of caution, to guarantee they would be available for people needing their second dose.

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