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County Public Health begins receiving COVID-19 vaccine
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After waiting for it to thaw, Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron received the department’s first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in a video on Monday.

“No burning or anything like that,” Caron said afterward. “I barely noticed it actually.”

Caron received the vaccine during her COVID-19 video update on Monday, which can be viewed on Steele County’s Facebook page, to give the public confidence in the vaccine.

Individuals wil have to weigh their own risk when deciding to get the vaccine and health officials already know some residents won’t receive the vaccine because they’re hesitant about it, she said. She added that she hopes receiving the vaccine publicly can build trust in it.

“By the time we get to these larger public (vaccination) clinics, hopefully enough of us have gone through it that they can see that they did alright,” she said.

The vaccine will be distributed through a highly coordinated approach, said Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst.

“People should not be calling and asking to be put on a list for a vaccination,” she said. “Messaging will go out when vaccination is available.”

Meanwhile, the surge in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota is lessening. Minnesota’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has dropped to 4.1%, which Caron said is “drastically down” from the previous two months. She said she hopes people kept their gatherings to a minimum during Christmas like they did during Thanksgiving, which helped lower the number of cases.

“Unfortunately, I think it has helped a little bit to have the bars and restaurants not have that indoor dining, although I know we can’t sustain for long because that takes a toll on our businesses,” she said.

Vaccine supplies

While Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is going to medical facilities, public health agencies are receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which requires two doses 28 days apart.

Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t need to be stored at extremely low temperatures like Pfizer’s vaccine does. The county doesn’t have a fridge that can store at the temperature needed for Pfizer and that’s part of the reason why the county is receiving Moderna’s doses, Caron said.

The state says it’s “game time” for the vaccine and counties shouldn’t hold on to any vaccines. In the region, Caron said they have a redistribution agreement to move vaccines if one area has a lot of vaccines and can’t use them.

Steele County Public Health received its first 100 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday and will receive 200 more on Tuesday. Rice County has received about 200 doses of Moderna’s vaccine and plans to begin vaccinating people who are considered the highest priority, including EMS and community COVID-19 testers, Purfeerst said.

Reports from the Johns Hopkins University vaccine tracker suggest that Minnesota is lagging behind neighboring states in vaccinations thus far, but Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Doug Schultz suggested those tallies are outdated.

According to Schultz, roughly 175,000 doses have made it to Minnesota and about 37,000 Minnesotans have already received one. With the stakes so high, Schultz said the state is taking the time it needs to properly train those who will deliver the vaccine.

One complicating factor is the extraordinarily cold temperatures at which the Pfizer vaccine must be kept. In addition, Schultz said that more mundane challenges like the pre-Christmas snowstorm that hit Minnesota hard can slow down delivery.

Allina Health’s David Albrecht serves as president of Owatonna Hospital and Faribault’s District One Hospital, which have both held successful COVID vaccination clinics for frontline workers. Albrecht said he hasn’t seen significant shortages of the vaccine thus far.

“I think we’ve gotten most of what we’ve needed,”he said. “Right now, there seems to be a continuous supply of shipment.”

Caron said she expects weekly shipments of the vaccine going forward and doesn’t expect any delays in the shipments. The county has been stockpiling other supplies needed to administer the vaccine, such as syringes and alcohol pads, to ensure the county won’t be stuck with vaccines without the supplies to provide them, she said. The county also has backup plans in place for staffing vaccine clinics as they deal with nurses out of the office due to COVID-19.

The vaccines are more than 90% effective and if enough people decide to get the vaccine, herd immunity can be built up quickly, Caron said.

“I’m hopeful that by the end of 2021 that we’re sitting in a really good position,” Caron said.

Vaccine phases

The vaccine is being distributed in Minnesota according to the categories set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Minnesota Department of Health. Phase 1a includes long-term care staff and residents, emergency medical personnel and healthcare workers. Phases 1b and 1c still need to be finalized in Minnesota, Caron said.

Phase 2 is when there will be an “overabundance” of COVID-19 vaccines and the county can begin rolling out the vaccine for the public, she said.

Caron said she believes rural counties will get through the first three phases more quickly than the Twin Cities metro because there’s less population. But it’ll be a matter of whether the county is allowed to then move right into vaccinations for the general public once it completes phases 1a, 1b and 1c. If that’s allowed, Caron said drive-thru vaccination clinics for the public could begin in April or early May.

Part of the county public health department’s role is also to assure that entities have what they need. Caron said they’re in communication with the health care systems to ensure they have enough of the vaccine. Long-term care facilities are contracting with major pharmacies to directly receive the vaccine for staff and residents, but the county public health department serves as a backup to provide them with the vaccine, she said.

Figuring out the logistics for vaccination clinics will take some work. Once the Moderna vaccine goes into the county’s fridge, it has to be used within 30 days and once the vial is opened, it needs to be used within six hours. Each vial of the Moderna vaccine contains 10 doses, compared with five doses in each Pfizer vial.

“We really got to get it down to a science as far as how many people are coming to these clinics, exactly who is going to show up,” she said. “The big thing now is getting that vaccine out as quick as possible and not wasting because it’s precious cargo.”

Feds make dramatic broadband investment in southern Minnesota
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With local governments across Minnesota struggling to reach the state’s lofty rural broadband goals, the federal government has stepped in, delivering a truckload of grant money to a Minnesota-based company expected to deliver fiber-optic coverage throughout southern Minnesota. but questions and concerns abound.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission formally allocated $9.2 billion in rural broadband grants, with Minnesota receiving more than $400 million, the fourth largest of any state.

The biggest winner both nationally and in Minnesota was LTD Broadband. A Nevada-based company, LTD currently provides broadband service throughout the Upper Midwest through a network of more than 1,800 wireless towers covering more than 50,000 square miles. LTD’s service area is centered around southern Minnesota, but it stretches as far south as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as far west as Huron, South Dakota, and as far north as Alexandria.

With the new grant funding in hand, LTD is set to dramatically expand its reach, entering into a dizzying array of new markets. In Minnesota alone, it’s set to reach more than 100,000 new customers.

A significant number of those new potential customers will be local. A map of the winners created by Cooperative Network Services shows LTD’s projects would dramatically expand fiber-optic coverage locally, especially in rural Le Sueur, Steele and Waseca counties. Rice County would see increased fiber-optic coverage as well, but in more limited areas. Richland Township in the county’s southeast corner is projected to be the project’s biggest beneficiary, but Shieldsville and Bridgewater townships will also benefit.

Statewide, LTD gobbled up more than three-quarters of funding, leaving little room for other providers. One exception was in Nicollet County, where Illinois-based Consolidated Communications picked up a small project near North Mankato and Texas-based AMG Technology Investment group got one funded near Nicollet.

Increasing access to broadband in rural areas has been a priority for years. Without rural broadband, advocates say that rural communities effectively find themselves locked out of educational and economic opportunities at the core of the 21st century economy.

Now, the pandemic has made the need all the more urgent, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of Americans who use the internet to work, study, receive medical care, and enjoy entertainment opportunities from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

At the state level, rural broadband is a rare issue with strong bipartisan support. Legislators have showered the Border-to-Border broadband grant with millions, though the traditional priority was sidelined somewhat as legislators rushed to fill immediate needs caused by the pandemic.

Current state law has a goal of ensuring that every Minnesotan has reliable access to the internet, with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. In 2026, those targets will rise to 100 Mbps per second and 20 Mbps per second, respectively.

While he knew that the federal government was going to spend big on rural broadband, Rice County Commissioner Galen Malecha expressed surprise that such a large allocation was given to a company he hadn’t even heard of before the announcement.

“We were surprised a relatively unknown company got the majority of the money versus the providers that already exist within the county,” he said.

For years, Rice County has struggled to finish building a comprehensive broadband network, with County Administrator Sara Folstad noting that the county isn’t seen as as high of a priority when compared to other jurisdictions.

Now that funding is finally coming to Rice County, Malecha said that he looks forward to establishing a working relationship with the company that has been tasked with getting the job done over the next decade. While the county has provided assistance to help some broadband projects get across the finish line, most recently with dollars provided through the CARES Act, Malecha said that given LTD’s massive budget it should be able to get the job done.

Still, whether or not the company will be able to achieve its huge promises is a fair question, and one that concerns Le Sueur County Administrator Darrell Pettis. While Pettis is familiar with LTD, he noted they traditionally provide only fixed wireless through the air, not fiber optic.

Pettis noted that completing much more modest fiber-optic installations on time has proven a challenge at times even for providers with a great deal of experience providing fiber-optic internet, like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications.

In a worst case scenario, LTD’s ambitious broadband expansion plans might not even make it that far. LTD’s proposal will be scrutinized in greater detail and could be rejected through the FCC’s Long Form application process, which is not even due until Feb. 15.

Should LTD’s plans fall through at one point or another, Pettis said that would leave the county in a tough spot because areas covered through the federal dollars take themselves out of the running for assistance through the state’s Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program.

Even if the project is completed, that would come with its own set of issues. Pettis noted that while many rural residents would fall within the new service area, its patchwork nature leaves many residents out in the cold, and reaching them could become even more inefficient.

“It makes trying to put together some kind of a plan very difficult,” he said.

After 6 years, Medford administrator to say goodbye
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After a six-year tenure, Medford City Administrator Andy Welti has submitted his letter of resignation.

Medford’s City Council is expected to consider Welti’s resignation at a meeting Monday (Dec. 28) night, along with the pathway forward. It will be the last meeting before Mayor-elect Danny Thomas and two new members of the City Council are sworn in next week.

A Plainview native, Welti graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato with a bachelor’s in secondary social studies education and an emphasis in geography. After graduation, he returned to his hometown and ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature.

In an upset, Welti defeated incumbent Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-High Forest Township and served for six years representing Plainview, Chatfield, Dover, Elgin, Stewartville and Rochester. After serving as a legislator, Welti moved to Milwaukee to teach at inner-city schools.

Welti went back to school to get his master’s in public administration, and began working through Community and Economic Development Associates, also known as CEDA. Through CEDA, Welti helped Medford to put together its Comprehensive Plan in 2014 and was later hired as interim city administrator after the departure of Heather McCallum. In 2015 he was confirmed as the city’s full-time administrator.

Welti didn’t have much to say about where he’s going next, but the outgoing administrator expressed gratitude for the opportunity given to him by thecCity of Medford. During his tenure, he helped to create and implement ambitious plans for the city.

“I want to thank the city of Medford for allowing me to serve as admin for the last six years and I wish it the best in its future endeavors,” he said.

Mayor Lois Nelson, who was defeated in her bid for a fourth term in November, worked closely with Welti throughout her tenure. When she was re-elected to a second (non-consecutive) term in 2012 she faced major challenges, including a steep deficit.

Thanks in part to Welti’s leadership, Nelson said the city made significant progress in improving its finances through a finance plan, as well as implementing a detailed and effective capital and street maintenance plans.

Welti kept his eye on the ball with larger projects as well. In the early part of his tenure, the council pushed hard for a $4 million municipal building to provide a community gathering spot and much needed space for the city’s Fire and Public Works departments.

However, voters in 2016 rejected a referendum that would have paid for the project with a 30% hike in property taxes by an overwhelming margin. Efforts to get bonding dollars from the state were also unsuccessful.

Nelson said that the city is continuing to work on the project, but for now its primary focus has shifted to more imminent needs. In particular, the city is looking for a solution for its wastewater needs, as the city is currently saddled with an old and inadequate plant.

A proposal to send wastewater to Faribault’s treatment facility has won support from city leadership because according to estimates cited by Welti, hooking into Faribault’s treatment plant could save Medford some $1.5 million over other options. According to an analysis released this fall by engineering firm Bolton & Menk, the impact on Faribault’s wastewater plant would be modest, allaying some concerns on the Faribault side that the project could inhibit future city growth.

While no state assistance has yet been requested to cover upfront expenses, the project was a topic of discussion when members of the Senate Capital Investment Committee visited Faribault late last year, with both Welti and Nelson briefing senators on it.

Another key initiative has been the construction of Main Street/County Road 45 through the city. The project is a joint initiative with Steele County, with the county covering 75% of the costs and the city responsible for the remaining 25%.

Welti and Nelson pushed hard for the city to invest in the project now, citing abnormally low interest rates. However, the rest of the council declined to move ahead with the project until the new council is sworn in next month.