Local health care systems say a majority of their staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19 but continue to educate those who have not on the importance of doing so.

That outreach continues as Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst said the lagging pace of vaccinations among 18-49-year-olds in Rice County leaves the county slightly below the state average in vaccinations.

Allina ‘strongly encouraging voluntary’ vaccinations

At Allina Health, which operates District One Hospital in Faribault and Owatonna Hospital in Steele County, more than 70% of employees were fully vaccinated as of Thursday. Allina's goal it to have at least 80% fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July.

At Owatonna Hospital, 66.8% of staff have received their first dose. At District One, that number drops to 62.8%. According to Allina, getting more people vaccinated "is our best path to end the pandemic, especially as new variants continue to emerge."

"With our current campaign to educate employees and answer their questions about the vaccine we expect to see vaccination rates increase in all of the communities we serve," according to a release from Allina Health.

"As health care providers, we must do everything we can to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the vaccines are proven to be safe and highly effective. Allina Health continues to educate employees about the proven safety of the vaccines and our current campaign is focused on answering any questions staff may have."

Northfield Hospital & Clinics CEO Steve Underdahl noted approximately 80% of staff have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and that it continnues "working with staff to help get as many of them vaccinated as we can.

“We have been educating and encouraging staff since December, when vaccination of health care workers began,” he said. “We work hard to address any concerns or worries that individuals have — on staff, and in the community. Our physician leaders are open to private conversation with anyone who is nervous or has specific concerns.” Also, NH+C is publishing videos of its providers and staff discussing their experiences, outreach Underdahl said is sometimes needed for others who are still undecided about taking the vaccine.

“It’s important for everyone who medically can be vaccinated to do so – to eliminate paths for the virus to spread,” he said. “It’s especially important for health care workers to be vaccinated, because they provide close physical care for sick people, who are more vulnerable to severe COVID. Vaccination provides the safest way for people to interact with each other.”

In certain situations nationally, health care workers have resisted taking the vaccine in mass numbers. In Texas, a federal judge this week threw out a lawsuit filed by employees of a Houston hospital system over its requirement that all of its staff be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Houston Methodist Hospital system recently suspended 178 employees without pay over their refusal to be vaccinated. Of them, 117 sued, seeking to overturn the requirement, their suspension and threatened termination.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston deemed lead plaintiff Jennifer Bridges’ contention that the vaccines are “experimental and dangerous” to be false and otherwise irrelevant. He also found that her likening the vaccination requirement to the Nazis’ forced medical experimentation on concentration camp captives during the Holocaust to be “reprehensible.”

‘It’s dangerous’

As of Thursday, Steele County had seen 16 COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic and 3,979 positive cases. In Rice County as of Friday, 110 deaths have been reported. Of those, 68 have been from long-term care center residents, 33 from private residences, and nine in prison.

Right now, vaccinations are available to anyone 12 and older. Rice County Public Health's Purfeerst said the pace of vaccinations has significantly lagged recently, noting 700-800 vaccinations were taking place on a daily basis during the busiest stretch. Now, she said that number is 20-30. That drop in demand means it is easier to find vaccination spots, and most providers allow for walk-ins.

Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available in Rice County, and walk-in clinics are available Thursdays. Even with the lagging pace, however, confirmed infections continue decreasing. Purfeerst noted that in one week in November, 785 new infections were reported in Rice County. From June 6-12, that number was 12.

As of Friday, the percentage of Rice County residents ages 16 and older who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (62.6%) was slightly behind state average (66%). However, that number belies the pace of vaccinations for Rice County in most age groups, including the age brackets of 12-15, 16-17, 50-64, and 65 and older. However, the local 18-49 age rate is much lower than the 66% state average at 49%. Though Purfeerst said she is unsure of why the 18-49 age bracket is seeing lower rates, she noted that correlates with the relatively slow pace of vaccinations in rural counties.

She added though there is some merit to the belief that the age group is less likely to fall seriously ill from COVID-19, she views vaccinations among that age group as protecting the entire community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is “a growing body of evidence” showing that people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are less likely to be asymptomatic infection carriers or transmit the virus to others.

“We know we have some work to do,” Purfeerst said.

Rice County staff will be in Nerstrand Monday and a Faribault mobile home park on Wednesday to conduct vaccination clinics. Last week, they went to a Faribault mosque and have been in businesses. There is a clinic in Owatonna Wednesday at the Steele County Public Health Department.

“We’re trying to make it easy for people,” Purfeerst noted.

Purfeerst noted that Rice County Public Health is also working with local health care providers and pharmacies to vaccinate and promote the efficacy of the vaccines, and expects that effort to last through the summer. To her, vaccination is the safest way to build immunity to the virus.

The ongoing reticence of some to taking the vaccine is "dangerous," says Northfield Hospital's Underdahl.

“Some sections of the population are still on the fence,” he said. “It’s challenging that there is so much misinformation. We try to be respectful and meet people where they are, but some of the information people are consuming is not just goofy, it’s dangerous. It becomes a barrier for people making good decisions about their health.”

Reach city reporter Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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