School leaders across the state and region were tasked Monday with identifying which employees should receive the first round of limited COVID-19 vaccines set aside for school staff.

The state allocated nearly 300 vaccine series to schools in the seven-county region of Northeastern Minnesota this week as part of its new community vaccine clinic program, according to a state document. The program consists of nine pilot sites across the state that will begin vaccinating both child care and school workers, as well as people ages 65 and older, later this week. Northeastern Minnesota’s site is in Mountain Iron.

Duluth Public Schools received the largest allocation in the region with 32 allotments. Duluth Superintendent John Magas said during a Duluth School Board meeting Tuesday night the district will prioritize those ages 55-64 starting with the oldest people and then moving to those with occupational risks. The district has around 350 employees ages 55-64.

Magas said occupational risks include staff members who have close physical contact with students, such as those who care for special education students that need help with feeding or going to the bathroom, preschool staff, and bus drivers and aides.

"Preschool staff was chosen because they are typically helping students put on coats or shoes," Magas said. "So they are physically close to young children."

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Magas said he also added bus drivers and aides to the priority list because they serve a large group of students from different pods.

Cloquet Public School District Superintendent Michael Cary said his district was notified of the vaccine plan Monday morning and quickly pulled together a group of 15 people to review a list of staff. They had to come up with a list of 13 people that same day in order to notify staff in time for them to be able to decline or accept the offer by the deadline later that night.

The district first analyzed its list based on age and then prioritized anyone it knew to have an underlying health condition.

“We're not a medical institution so we're not necessarily privy to all of our staff’s medical documentation. We had to kind of just go off of what we do know,” Cary said. “We didn't get very far down our staff list before we had our 13 people.”

Dr. Michael Cary, superintendent of Cloquet Schools. (File / Pine Journal)
Dr. Michael Cary, superintendent of Cloquet Schools. (File / Pine Journal)

Some school districts weighed whether to include staff aged 65 and older on their lists since the state’s pilot program has a separate application process for people in that category. Cary said his group chose to include staff in that age group since they weren’t confident they would be able to secure an appointment this week.

Nearly 1 million Minnesotans are 65 and older and there were only enough vaccines for 3,000 of those people to make appointments this week.

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“It's not a very comfortable decision to have to make,” Cary said of the process. “But I completely understand that on the state level this is kind of unprecedented in recent history and we probably don't have the time to be able to consult medical professionals on all these decisions.”

Reggie Engebritson, superintendent of both the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools District and St. Louis County School District, said it wasn’t easy determining who the first vaccines would go to.

“I'm looking at age, maybe even anxiety levels, health factors, just a variety of things,” Engebritson said. “The staff have been very understanding. They're happy that it's a start and people have been pretty accommodating.”

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Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools was allocated vaccines for four people and St. Louis County School District was allocated vaccines for 14 people.

All the educators in the region who were tapped to receive a vaccine will have to travel to the community site in Mountain Iron Friday or Saturday of this week.

Schools received basic guidelines and suggestions from the state on how to go about selecting who should be invited to get a vaccine first. If any of the selected people decide they don’t want the vaccine, school leaders will be notified and asked to offer backup names.

Noel Schmidt is the superintendent of Rock Ridge Public Schools. (Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / News Tribune)
Noel Schmidt is the superintendent of Rock Ridge Public Schools. (Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / News Tribune)

Rock Ridge Public Schools Superintendent Noel Schmidt said his school district chose to prioritize staff who work at the elementary school level with students who have special needs, starting with the oldest employees in that category. Rock Ridge is the recently combined district of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert schools.

“It’s one of those situations where no matter what you do, somebody is not going to be happy with what was done and think there was a different way to do it. On the bright side … we do have 14 staff members who are getting the vaccine early,” Schmidt said. “These are adults who we felt are doing a lot of hands-on with the kids and they have to do hands-on.”

Minnesota schools can expect to receive their next vaccine allocation next week, according to a Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson.

In addition to the 6,000 vaccine doses the state has set aside for 3,000 school staff and child care workers in the state, another 6,000 doses have been set aside for those aged 65 and older. Each vaccine site in Greater Minnesota, including Mountain Iron, has enough vaccines for 260 people in that age category this week. All appointments were filled at the Mountain Iron site shortly after people could begin registering at noon, according to the state.

“If you can’t make an appointment now, you will be able to make one soon," said Kris Ehresmann, director of the health department's Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, in a media briefing Tuesday.

People will also have the chance to receive vaccine doses from their provider. Minnesotans should not contact their health care providers right now, Ehresmann said. Health care providers will let patients know when they can make an appointment for a vaccine.

Last week Essentia Health sent out a news release encouraging patients to sign up for MyChart. Through that portal, patients can receive vaccine notifications and, when the time comes, sign up for their vaccination. The portal will notify patients when they can sign up.

To register for the health care portal visit essentiahealth.org and click the "MyChart" button in the upper-right corner.

How to sign up for vaccinations

People who are 65 and older and want to receive a vaccination at one of the community pilot sites can either call or sign up online to register for an appointment.

No walk-ins will be accepted. Anyone who arrives at a vaccination site without an appointment will be asked to leave and provided with information on how to register. Educators and child care providers should not schedule an appointment unless they have been directed to by an employer.

Every Tuesday at noon the state will take new appointments. To sign up, visit mn.gov/covid19/vaccine or call 612-426-7230 or 833-431-2053.