COVID-19 vaccine

Darrin Braam gets his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Thursday from Blue Earth County Public Health nurse Liz Ainsley at a clinic at the Lincoln Community Center. Mankato Area Public Schools collaborated with the county to organize and run the site, which was aimed at making vaccines as accessible as possible.

Arnold Siyapche wasn’t sure about getting the COVID-19 vaccine at first. But after weighing the risks against the virus’ risks, he stepped forward for his first dose Thursday.

Originally from Cameroon, the Mankato resident said he hopes the vaccine helps get the community through the pandemic.

“Everybody has to do their part, and my part is considering other people’s health and just getting vaccinated,” he said.

He received his first dose of Moderna at a new vaccine site at Lincoln Community Center, which took both appointments and walk-ins as a strategy to make the vaccine as accessible as possible. Mankato Area Public Schools, or MAPS, partnered with Blue Earth County to organize and run the site Thursday.

The partners had about 300 doses available. After seeing the steady stream of people coming in for vaccines, MAPS Director of Community Education Audra Nissen Boyer said more dates could be in the offing at the community center.

“Lincoln Community Center is seen as a hub for safety, security and growth in our community,” she said. “I knew if we could figure out a way to get that here, people would see that as their opportunity to get the vaccine.”

One of the site’s goals was to reach underserved communities. Interpreters were on hand to help non-English speakers through the vaccine process, including signing up for second doses in May.

As the state sprints ahead in its quest for herd immunity, reaching out to more underserved populations will be an important hurdle to clear. The organizers reached out to students at Lincoln Community Center, which offers adult education classes for immigrant and refugee populations among other groups, ahead of Thursday’s vaccine clinic.

Nissen Boyer said the school district and county also focused attention on informing the surrounding neighborhood. If people knew of anyone hesitant or unaware of how/where to get a vaccine, they were encouraged to send them to the community center.

“We knew it was an opportunity to inform and educate student populations within our community that would not have a whole lot of other opportunities to get the vaccine,” she said.

South-central Minnesota recently surpassed the 50% mark in eligible residents being vaccinated with first doses. Progress has slowed, however, prompting health professionals to speak out about how to assure hesitant people about the vaccine’s safety.

Mayo Clinic Health System’s southwest Minnesota region, which includes Mankato, was administering about 1,000 to 1,200 first doses per week until about two weeks ago. Since then, said Director of Pharmacy Perry Sweeten, the number dropped to about 400 last week and then 200 this week.

“The demand, at least to my lens, just plummeted out of the sky,” he said during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

The stall isn’t primarily caused by people being late for their second doses, although that is happening in about 3.4% of cases statewide compared to about 1% in the health system’s southwestern region. It’s more about fewer people seeking their first doses.

Sweeten and Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic vaccine research group, said putting the vaccine’s rare side effects in perspective is one strategy to help address the remaining unvaccinated population’s concerns.

Penicillin, for instance, is a familiar antibiotic to the vast majority of people. The risk of a severe reaction from the COVID-19 vaccine, Sweeten said, is similar to or even lower than the risk of a severe reaction from penicillin.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused last month as agencies investigated rare blood-clotting side effects. As Sweeten pointed out, it happened in about as many people as would be expected in an unvaccinated population.

“This is occurring at no greater frequency than if the vaccine wasn’t even given,” he said.

Poland offered another way to put the vaccine’s risks in context against COVID-19’s risks. Compared to the two to four cases of anaphylaxis per million mRNA vaccine doses — Moderna and Pfizer — he said one in 560 Americans have died of COVID-19 complications.

“The observed risk of COVID if you decide not to get a vaccine has been the disruption in every aspect of our lives, the development of new variants, a virus that now causes when you get infected a viral load fourfold higher than what it did with the previous version of the virus, and 66% of those people are ending up with end-organ damage of one sort or another,” he said. “ … Which risk do you want to take?”

One of the people getting vaccinated Thursday knows all too well how serious COVID-19 can be. Darrin Braam had a severe case around the New Year and is dealing with long-term symptoms to this day.

“I’ve had meningitis twice and meningitis was nothing,” he said. “This was the sickest I’ve ever been.”

He described himself as a “long-hauler” who is still experiencing shortness of breath, brain fog and fatigue about five months after he was first diagnosed. Because of his experience with the illness, he didn’t have concerns about getting the vaccine Thursday.

“I just hope it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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