Groups most vulnerable to poor health outcomes are being prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations by the local public health department.

St. Louis County Public Health is directing 20% of its COVID-19 vaccination allotments to people in minority and marginalized populations. The county is reaching underserved populations by partnering with community organizations aimed at serving those people.

It’s meant vaccination clinics at board and lodges, homeless and domestic violence shelters, and places such as the American Indian Community Housing Organization, which hosted a vaccination clinic earlier this month for its housing and shelter residents, and communities of color.

“St. Louis County is working hard, and we've built a really strong partnership,” AICHO Director of Programming Daryl Olson said. “Across Minnesota, they’re not all doing it in the same authentic and genuine way St. Louis County has stepped up to do it.”

Portia Johnson registers for her COVID-19 vaccination with American Indian Community Housing Organization Executive Director Daryl Olson on Feb. 4. (Photo by Ivy Vainio)
Portia Johnson registers for her COVID-19 vaccination with American Indian Community Housing Organization Executive Director Daryl Olson on Feb. 4. (Photo by Ivy Vainio)

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The News Tribune spoke with county officials to better understand how the county is reaching underserved and vulnerable populations.

Among the populations being vaccinated so far are 740 people who are homeless; they received their first of two vaccination shots earlier this month, some at a vaccination clinic conducted at CHUM in Duluth.

“What we’re trying to do in St. Louis County is a bifurcated model,” organizational development specialist Ryan Bauers said, describing distribution of vaccine doses. “Twenty percent focuses on priority populations and making sure marginalized populations are not left out, that they’re cared for.”

The 80% majority of local public health's allotment of doses is being used at semi-permanent vaccination sites in the northern and southern halves of the county.

Ryan Bauers
Ryan Bauers

But health disparities occur among folks who don’t have proper housing, or experience transportation barriers, underlying health conditions, historical trauma and lack of access to health care. Some people can experience more than one of those factors, making it harder for them to stay healthy at any time, much less during a pandemic.

Stories around the country have focused on groups of people, including African Americans and Indigenous people, who are left behind by vaccination programs despite being disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

Those folks sometimes can’t reach a clinic in a fixed location.

So, St. Louis County is going to them.

“We’re meeting people where they’re at,” Rebecca Paulson, public health nurse coordinator, said. “There’s been so much gratitude — overwhelming gratitude. They’re telling us, ‘Thank you for thinking of us, for not forgetting about us, for being here for us.’”

Lisa Konicek is another public health nurse coordinator. She and Paulson described themselves as feeling privileged to see the wide range of reactions from people — joy, relief, even some tears.

“It’s an honor to be able to listen to folks as they share with us,” Konicek said.

The targeted vaccination opportunities have come on the heels of the county’s testing outreach. So, while there is still vaccine hesitancy — people wary or distrustful of being vaccinated — the county and its partners are educating as they go, and making in-roads in that regard, too.

“There’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy in our community,” AICHO’s Olson said. “It’s one of the things we’re striving really hard to work through with this partnership.”

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For instance, the county has been visiting AICHO since November, with its saliva-testing program.

“They’ve built a relationship with community members who come here regularly to get tested, too,” Olson said. “The county sees the same individuals, and it’s building trust.”

One of the benefits of the partnership figures to come soon, when people are scheduled to receive their second doses. The News Tribune asked Bauers how the county will be able to track down people who are homeless.

“It will be a challenge,” he said. “But in Duluth and St. Louis County, we have so many strong community organizations so well-connected to the people they serve. I can’t overstate the idea of partnership.”

Sandra Wright receives her COVID-19 vaccination at AICHO from public health program coordinator Josh Gorham on Feb. 4. (Photo by Ivy Vainio)
Sandra Wright receives her COVID-19 vaccination at AICHO from public health program coordinator Josh Gorham on Feb. 4. (Photo by Ivy Vainio)

County officials said one of the tenets of public health work is to be working toward the protection of people in all communities, particularly those most susceptible to poor outcomes. Even if some of them are younger than the current vaccine rollout age of 65, the priority communities being addressed by the county are not skipping ahead, sources said.

“We are still a moral society, where we care about those most vulnerable,” Bauers said. “If people are upset about that, it’s because their moral compass is broken.”

Paulson noted it is work she and her colleagues want to be doing.

“I can’t overlook what I would say is just a huge commitment and passion of the public health workforce to reach these populations,” Paulson said.

The only thing holding back the county now is the number of doses allotted to the county. Last week, the county received 30% fewer doses than the week before it.

“We have very strategically and effectively gotten the doses out that we have been allocated,” Bauers said. “When we have more doses from the federal government, we’ll be ready for those.”

Konicek said the county is also connecting people in its sphere to pharmacies, which began receiving doses earlier this month.

“Any which way people can get vaccinated,” she said. “The fastest way is the best way.”

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 23, 2021 to correct Daryl Olson's job title. It was originally posted at 6:05 a.m. Feb. 23.

The News Tribune regrets the error.