More than 1,400 people tuned in Friday at noon to watch a live information session about COVID-19 vaccines with health experts from Essentia Health.
Viewers were urged to sign up for MyChart (previously called MyHealth) to get their information on file for the vaccine. People who have received care at an Essentia location in the past are eligible to sign up now, and other members of the public are expected to be able to sign up next Tuesday. Essentia will use personal information in MyChart to randomly select people to schedule their vaccine as they become eligible.
People outside of the current eligibility can sign up with MyChart in anticipation of their vaccine. Essentia will begin scheduling people as they qualify in accordance with state rollouts.
Is the vaccine worth it?
The current vaccines being distributed, Pfizer-Biotech and Moderna, both were shown to be 95% effective in trials on more than 70,000 people. Both types of vaccine require two doses to achieve that rate.
"One dose is better than no dose, but two is 95% effective," said Dr. Amanda Noska, infectious disease physician at Essentia in Duluth.
It takes about 14 days after the second dose of vaccine for a person's immune system to be completely ready to elicit an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 (the current coronavirus causing COVID-19).
Both vaccines have been shown to provide at least four to six months of immunity so far, but the exact length of immunity is not currently known, Noska said. Moderna suggests their vaccine should provide at least a year of protection against the virus.
Dr. Peter Henry, Essentia chief medical officer, said the world cannot return to "normal" until at least 70% of the population is inoculated, or achieves herd immunity. With a death rate of 1%-3%, getting widespread vaccinations is a much less deadly option. The side effects in most people are mild compared to the symptoms of COVID-19. Side effects are temporary fatigue, fever, headaches or soreness at the site of the vaccination. People with histories of allergic reactions to vaccines may want to consult their physicians before receiving the vaccine.
Is it safe?
Both of the current vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which do not contain live or inactive virus germs, and instead cause the body to produce protein that elicits an immune response against the coronavirus.
Dr. Rich Vetter, chief medical officer of Essentia's west region, said although the process to roll out the vaccines was expedited, no steps were skipped in the testing process. Instead, many phases of development and testing occurred at the same time and scientists worked around the clock to speed up the process. And no, the vaccine does not alter DNA. The mRNA in the vaccine is eventually eliminated by the body's cells.
Am I immune if I already had COVID-19?
People who have tested positive for COVID-19 or antibodies may have immunity to the virus for up to three months after infection, Noska said. People should schedule a vaccination after three months have passed since a positive test so they can continue to produce antibodies against the virus.
People who have previously had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated should continue to wear masks, social distance, avoid large gatherings and wash hands regularly to ensure the virus is not spread. While the vaccines are 95% effective, there is still a chance of infection and transmission — although the chance is much smaller than without a vaccine.
What about the new strains?
New strains of SARS-CoV-2 are being discovered around the world. COVID-19 appears to mutate at half the rate of influenza and one fourth the rate of HIV. The variants could lead to a new surge in the state if people let their guard down, Noska said.
The B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, has been confirmed in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The vaccine is believed to be effective against the new strain. However, there is a higher rate of asymptomatic positive cases and it is about 50% more transmissible.
There are also variants in South Africa, B.1.351, and Brazil, P.1, that have not yet been identified in the United States, but may not be prevented by the vaccine. Beginning Jan. 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will require every person entering the U.S. through an international airport to provide a negative COVID-19 test.
When am I eligible?
The state is still experiencing a much higher demand for vaccines than the supply can handle. St. Louis County is now scheduling appointments for people in the third and final tier of Phase 1a, which includes employees at smaller health care providers such as dentist offices, dialysis centers and mental health facilities.
The state's recently announced vaccine pilot program has started vaccinating people in Phase 1b, although officially, the state is still working on getting vaccines to everyone in 1a. People eligible for the pilot program are Minnesotans ages 65 and older as well as child care and school staff. The state of Minnesota has yet to announce its full guidelines for Phase 1b.
"Here in Duluth and northeast Minnesota we have been working closely with our local public health offices to vaccinate the remaining Phase 1a group," said Louie St. George, Essentia media relations specialist. "We hope to start the 65-plus group next week in all current vaccination locations, including Duluth and our regional hospitals."
The pilot program includes nine vaccine clinics in the state. Northeastern Minnesota's site is in Mountain Iron. People ages 65 and older who want to receive a vaccination at one of the community pilot sites can either call or sign up online to register for an appointment.
The state will take new appointments at noon Tuesday. To sign up, visit mn.gov/covid19/vaccine or call 612-426-7230 or 833-431-2053.
No walk-ins will be accepted. Educators and child care providers should not schedule an appointment unless they have been directed to by an employer.