Even as more Rice County residents receive vaccines, NH+C President/CEO Steve Underdahl said his organization is seeing a record number of COVD-19 patients — most younger than those hospitalized earlier in the pandemic.
In comments made during an April 29 NH+C Board meeting, Underdahl noted the organization saw record high numbers of hospitalized patients this week with COVID-19-induced pneumonia, ranging in age from people in their 20s to 70s. He did not provide detailed statistics of the trend during the meeting.
Underdahl noted approximately half of those hospitalized NH+C last week were COVID-19 patients. Most were young to middle-aged adults. He added in November/December, between 30% and 60% of hospitalized patients had COVID-19 or were under investigation for the virus, but at that time it was mainly older adults. NH+C treats COVID-19 patients in a separate wing from others, and separate spaces in the Emergency Department.
“We’re also seeing COVID spread among family members, with whole households getting sick,” Underdahl said.
“This is catching people — especially young people — off-guard,” he said. “COVID is very real in our community, still.”
Underdahl said the patients are “genuinely surprised” that they got sick, noting the local trend is following a statewide pattern. More than 1,000 COVID-19 infections have reportedly been in pre-K through 12th-grade levels each of the last two weeks, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
To Underdahl, COVID-19-related vigilance fatigue has set in. He said the increase in younger patients only intensifies the need to ensure more people are vaccinated against the disease. As of Friday, April 30, NH+C had administered more than 17,000 COVID-19 shots. According to Rice County Public Health, 45.4% of residents had received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday. Nearly 33.5% had completed the vaccine series.
The county has seen 104 total deaths from the virus ranging in victim age from 24 to 104 years old. Of the deaths, 68 have been in residents of long-term care facilities. Nine more have been in prison settings, and 27 in private residences.
Underdahl is noticing an increase in no-show rates for vaccination appointments. He suspects that is due to people deciding to receive their shots at other locations, or out of a perception that they don’t need to receive the complete series after receiving the first. Others have reportedly expressed concern about others who have become sick after receiving second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Underdahl said NH+C is rapidly moving from having more vaccine demand than availability to being faced with an abundance of supplies and shortage of public demand. However, he said that drop off has been less dramatic in Northfield than in more rural locations.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, the hesitation to get vaccinated is common in rural Minnesota. As of April 20, just 32% of eligible residents in Benton County had received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That was considered one of the lowest percentages of any Minnesota county and well below the statewide number of 53%.
Carrie Henning Smith, deputy director of the Rural Health Research Center at the University of Minnesota, told MPR that vaccine hesitancy is higher among people with more conservative political beliefs and evangelical Christians, who disproportionately live in rural areas. Underdahl said there are a growing number of online stories highlighting perceived fertility problems for some who took the vaccine. However, he said there is no data to support that assertion.
Underdahl said the health care nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation has reportedly estimated that approximately 44% of American adults are hesitant or unwilling to get the vaccine. A more recent survey has found that number to be one-third of U.S. adults.
NH+C is producing videos and other materials to promote what they deem to be the overwhelming safety of vaccines. Underdahl acknowledged that it is difficult to convince those who are hesitant.
NH+C has a phone number (507) 646-1919, for basic information in English and Spanish. Pages dedicated to explaining the risks of COVID-19 and vaccines have been introduced.