St. Louis County commissioners and public health officials have been planning for the prospect that a coronavirus vaccine will become available for health care workers, first responders and nursing home residents beginning as soon as next month.

For now, much depends on the Food and Drug Administration authorizing what appears to become the first vaccine, made by Pfizer. And so, much remains unknown on the regional level, Amy Westbrook, director of the county’s Public Health Division, told commissioners earlier this week. But her team has been strategizing with hospitals, the Northeast Healthcare Coalition and the Minnesota Health Department to figure out how to initially vaccinate “individuals who are critical in response or vulnerable populations.”

“There will be a small amount of vaccine coming to the region,” Westbrook said during the recorded board meeting Tuesday via Zoom. “We anticipate that we’ll have to really prioritize even within subgroups of where that available vaccine goes, and we also want to work with our regional patterns in storing it and getting it out.”

Like health officials across the nation, she anticipated that a vaccine would become available to the general public in 2021.

Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Fayal Township, suggested the health division immediately embark on an educational campaign to battle the potential wariness toward the vaccine.

“As one citizen, I have full trust and faith in our system and I would be lining up to take the vaccine as soon as it becomes available for the population sector that I lie in,” Nelson said. He added, “I really believe, that at least the people that I serve are going to have a lot more trust and faith in St. Louis County healthcare workers, the people that they live with, that their kids go to school with their children, then someone from st paul or someone from Washington, D.C.”

Nelon’s comments come at a time when recent national polls show between a third and half of Americans say they would be hesitant to get it. His remarks were directed to Westbrook, who has been leading the county’s coronavirus response, in a region facing backlash from residents refusing to wear masks and social distance.

“Unfortunately, there may not be the total confidence that we’re looking for and there is a lot of educational opportunities for the general population as it relates to a COVID vaccine,” Westbrook said. “We’re hoping there is a good uptake for the vaccine. That’s yet to be determined.”

The Minnesota Health Department “is planning a robust communication campaign,” she added. But there remains no such movement on a local level, for now, aside from the constant reminders from officials to follow safety measures. She agreed with Nelson and asked him and his fellow commissioners to vocalize their own support for a vaccine.

Most in attendance appeared hopeful for the potential of a vaccine, and applauded members of the county’s Public Health Division for their months of work in educating the public and hosting testing events in various cities, such as Ely and Chisholm.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Commissioner Boyle. “It’s a ways out, but it’s there.”

And yet their enthusiasm appeared short-lived as they discussed the ongoing number of people being infected with the virus on the Iron Range and in Duluth, mostly due to community transmission. On the day of the meeting, on Tuesday, the county reported 9,088 total cases of COVID-19, a staggering figure given that 3,835 cases were tallied in the first week of the month. There were 440 people hospitalized, with medical centers straining to keep inpatient and intensive care units open to newcomers. The number of deaths jumped to 112 people.

“I feel like we’re putting the cart a little bit before the horse,” Boyle said. “We’re all looking for this immunization, which is excellent. But I’m still very worried about where we’re at right now.”

The county on Wednesday reported an additional 192 cases, 39 hospitalizations and 12 deaths.

Boyle made references to Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy who last month was appointed to President-elect Joe Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. He noted Osterholm recently saying people would be facing a winter of “COVID hell” as the national number of cases and deaths have dramatically increased.

“Indeed we are in that spectrum,” Boyle said.

Westbrook agreed and reported that the month of November accounted for about half of the county’s total hospital and ICU patient numbers and a third of deaths due to the coronavirus. “We don’t want our health care systems to be overrun,” she said, noting that hospitals had prepped for surges. “But they are really close to capacity.”

She stressed the differences between COVID-19 and influenza hospitalizations. In the entire 2019-2020 flu season, 152 people were hospitalized. In November, 248 people were hospitalized because of the coronavirus. “That isn’t really slowing down,” she said. “We’ll see those numbers continue to rise.”

Overall, St. Louis County has been reporting an average of 210 cases per day, Westbrook said. “About 75 percent reported to us now have been infected either been exposed in the community or we don’t have information for them,” she said. “Community transmission is widespread across our communities in St. Louis and it’s been difficult to keep up with the numbers in terms of gathering info from individuals who are reported to us.” A third of the cases are found in people between the ages of 20-35, she said, noting the governor’s recent restrictions on bars and restaurants are aimed at locating the age group. She broke down the median ages for infection: 34; hospitalizations: 70; and death: 85.

She said she’s “certainly concerned” for the winter and expects to see a rise in cases as the virus continues to spread in the region. “It’s not a good forecast for the next couple of months,” she said.

Commission Chair Mike Jugovich circled back to say that he realizes “everyone’s excited about the possibility of a vaccine and it sounds like it’s coming and it sounds like it’s going to be a great thing.” But for now, he suggested that county residents follow safety guidelines to not only protect themselves and others but to help not overload the straining health care system.

“It’s critical that we maintain what we’re doing,” he said. “We maintain our masks, our social distancing, whatever we can do to be part of the solution versus part of the problem.”

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