When a limited number of vaccine appointments opened to Minnesotans ages 65 and older Tuesday, Lynn Kohlhase, of Virginia, had both her smartphone and laptop ready to snag an appointment for her 86-year-old mother who has spent much of the past 10 months isolated.
Unlike most who attempted, she was able to register her mother without a hiccup.
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"The family is very excited," Kohlhase said. "It's been almost a year of trying to keep Grandma safe."
On Friday, the opening day of the Northeastern Minnesota's community vaccine clinic, she accompanied her mother, Gerry Filipovich, also of Virginia, to her first of two COVID-19 vaccine appointments at the Mountain Iron pilot clinic. While Kohlhase said she's still going to social distance and wear a mask around her mother, she feels a little easier now about going inside to visit her.
Filipovich was used to having people coming in and out all the time, but the pandemic has reduced that to just regular visits from one neighbor who's also been secluded. And on Christmas, a day she usually spent cooking for nearly 40 people, Filipovich sat alone in her home video calling family instead.
"My mother, who had a heart attack at 34 and died at 99, had this saying, 'You live long enough, you get to see everything,'" Filipovich said. "That's how I feel about this."
The vaccine clinic in Mountain Iron is one of nine in Minnesota that the state opened this week as a pilot program. Those eligible to receive a vaccine through the pilot program are Minnesotans ages 65 and older as well as pre-K-12 educators and licensed child care providers who were selected by their employers.
"We're taking the advantage of having supplies right now, our small amount of supplies, to learn what we can so we're able and ready to implement as we move forward," said Jason Clusmen, state incident commander for the Mountain Iron site.
Most of the state's pilot clinics are located in the same cities as the state's nine Minnesota Service Cooperative hubs. Northeastern Minnesota's site is in Mountain Iron. During the pandemic, the service cooperatives have served as the link between school districts and the state in many ways, including decision making and the site where personal protective equipment is delivered.
Cory Kolodji, a Chisholm High School science teacher, became the region's first teacher to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Chisholm Public School District was allocated enough vaccines for six employees to register for the appointment. He said he was 13th on the district's list, meaning six people passed on the offer before him.
"I think that's a terrible, terrible mistake. Anyone who's eligible or has the potential to do it should do it for themselves, for their families, should do it for their community. It's just so important for us to get protected," Kolodji said. "It's my civic duty; it's my patriotic duty to come in here, to get stuck in the arm. And there's not a lot of risk involved. It's not like it's really, really dangerous."
Asked what his reaction was when he was told he was selected to receive the vaccine this week, Kolodji said he cried when he called his wife to share the news.
"I really did. I felt this wave of relief. I didn't even know how concerned I was. I didn't know how much stress I felt because I've been teaching all year," he said. "I didn't realize how worried I was about it."
Amy Hultman, a counselor at Mountain Iron-Buhl High School, received her vaccine shortly before Kolodji.
"I feel extremely blessed to be one of the first people at this location to see my COVID-19 vaccine," Hultman said. "It's definitely an exciting day for educators across the state and all residents in Minnesota. The past 10 months have been very challenging."
Those ages 65 and older will have another chance to register for a vaccine appointment at noon Tuesday. No walk-ins will be accepted. To sign up, visit mn.gov/covid19/vaccine or call 612-426-7230 or 833-431-2053.
School leaders are expected to receive another vaccine allocation next week. Only school employees selected by their employers can register for an appointment.