HIBBING - In the Mesabi Mall Shopping Center, nurses at Thrifty White Pharmacy have administered hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines since the beginning of the year.

In January, they first served people who were 65 years old and older in long-term care and assisted living facilities. The following month, they began vaccinating people with pre-existing conditions. And as of late, they have started to welcome anyone in the general population to walk into the pharmacy doors and receive a dose of a vaccine.

“We’ve opened it up to include walk-ins,” said Sarah Stoltenburg, who is a pharmacist at Thrifty White, a chain of stores in Hibbing, Virginia and Grand Rapids. “We’re just trying to make sure we hit all of the population.”

In recent weeks, the one immunization nurse here gives up to 50 Moderna doses each day. Meantime, the technicians, who have been handling the paper work from “a much higher volume” of people who typically enter the pharmacy for their annual influenza shots, are referring community members to sign up for their shots online. The online tool also allows the store to take in a certain number of folks at a time, in order to abide by social distance measures as they continue to ask people to wait in the store for 15 minutes after receiving their vaccine in case they experience side effects.

“It’s a full bustling pharmacy,” Stoltenburg said.

Pharmacies in the region have reported similar anecdotes, as more and more people on the Iron Range are signing up for their vaccines.

In St. Louis County, at least 35,343 people received a vaccine dose in April, down from the 58,607 last month. The drop in numbers reflects the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution and the increased number of people who have already secured two rounds of Moderna doses. In a county of 200,000 residents, at least 95,945 people in total have received one vaccine dose and 72,935 complete a vaccine series, according to the Minnesota Health Department on Tuesday.

More than 2.3 million of the 5.6 million residents statewide have received one vaccine dose and 1.6 million complete a series.

Increase in youth testing positive for COVID-19

Last weekend, state health officials showed that more than half of Minnesotans 16 and older have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Minnesota Public Radio reported. That number climbed to 51.6 percent as of Sunday’s update — with more than 36 percent of Minnesota adults fully vaccinated.

But the state also reported 25 more COVID-19 deaths over the weekend, pushing the overall pandemic death toll past 7,000, to 7,020.

Hospitalizations have climbed significantly in the past weeks and are hovering around levels not seen since early January. Health officials say coronavirus variants circulating in Minnesota are driving those increases. The age of those newly hospitalized is trending younger than earlier in the pandemic. The majority of people in the hospital now for COVID-19 are younger than 60.

Young people — some of whom are too young to be vaccinated — are driving case growth statewide. The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has grown, with more than 44,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

The state is asking any student involved in youth sports or extracurricular activities of any kind to get tested for COVID-19 every week. With kids increasingly returning to school buildings and sports, Minnesota public health officials are urging Minnesota families with children, in general, to be tested every two weeks for COVID-19 until the end of the school year.

Hearing out vaccine hesitancy

In Chishlolm, Alida Casey, a fifth-generation pharmacist at Casey Drug, noted that “testing has been so busy lately, since we’re seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, especially among school aged kids.” She agrees with the state’s reporting that “the biggest number of cases come with the variants” and “classroom spreads, which is concerning because there’s a lot more transmission from child to child.”

Casey and the staff have been providing COVID-19 tests at the store while holding vaccine clinics in the local senior care center.

“We’ve administered several thousand Moderna vaccine doses,” she said. “By giving doses at the senior center, we’ve been able to get a couple hundred people through in several hours.”

She anticipated using Johnson and Johnson doses in the near future, which she believes will draw more people who refrain from signing up for Moderna shots that come 28 days apart.

The pharmacists acknowledged that they sometimes face hesitancy from people who worry about vaccines.

Casey described how the demand for vaccines has slowed down due to people being hesitant to receive shots. “I think we’re in a hard spot,” she said. “Trying to do a public health message perception wise, something from the top down isn't well received by some people. So, it’s the local providers, nurses, doctors, pharmacists and clinics hearing the patients out and not pressuring them. Most people realize that once you get the vaccinations, you don’t have to quarantine.”

“People have questions about the safety of it all,” Stoltenburg added. “If hesitant, they were probably hesitant from the very beginning. Some people end up getting the vaccine. Some people feel more comfortable waiting it out.”

Both pharmacists say their open to talking with people about the safety of vaccinations. “The important thing is to not shut people down,” Casey said. “Some people are more hesitant, because they think the vaccine sounds like this new and glamorous science, but it’s not as sci-fi as it sounds to people.”

The St. Louis County Health Department scheduled vaccine clinics at Hibbing City Memorial (Moderna) and Eveleth Curling Club (Pfizer) on Thursday. For more information, visit the county’s vaccine registration at stlouiscountymt.gov.

Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this story.

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