As COVID-19 vaccinations continue at a slowed rate, the Ely and Side Lake areas, as well as pockets of Duluth, are leading St. Louis County in percentage of residents vaccinated.

St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department and a group of community partners have been utilizing this kind of local vaccine data since April to help determine where to focus vaccination outreach.

“We meet with that group on a regular basis, looking at vaccine uptake and strategizing as how to make it accessible and available, especially in areas where we're seeing a low uptake or there's a high social vulnerability, or both,” said St. Louis County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook.

Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division director, talks during a press conference in March at the St. Louis County Government Services Building in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)
Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division director, talks during a press conference in March at the St. Louis County Government Services Building in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)

Nearly 56% of people in St. Louis County have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That percentage includes those under age 12 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

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In the ZIP code that includes Side Lake, 73% of all residents have at least one dose, while 69% of people do in Ely’s ZIP code, according to state data as of June 10.

Duluth’s Park Point neighborhood leads the county’s ZIP codes in most vaccinated residents at 74% vaccinated. Eastern Duluth also has some of the highest rates in the county.

Westbrook said the vaccine rates by ZIP code don't tell the whole story.

Certain areas, for example, likely have higher concentrations of children age 12 and younger who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.

In Duluth, the Hillside neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and western Duluth have all been areas of concentrated vaccine outreach. All have rates between 49% and 54%.

“We want to limit barriers as much as possible so it’s available and accessible,” Westbrook said of those areas.

The county is trying to understand why some areas in the northern half of St. Louis County have lower vaccine uptake. Westbrook said they're not assuming it's because people in those communities are hesitant or opposed to vaccines.

"It could still be an accessibility issue," she said. "We may still be seeing some people who are waiting for the right accessibility option, at the church they go to or something that's just down the street that they can go to while they're going somewhere else."

The first step in figuring out how to limit or eliminate barriers is figuring out what the barrier is, said Katie Albert with St. Louis County Public Health.

“Is it accessibility? Is it some other barrier? If you know that, it makes getting the vaccine to those people easier,” Albert said. “I think for some areas we find it takes a lot of boots on the ground, our staff getting out there and talking to people and seeing what their reasons are as to why rates are lower in a certain area.”

Heading into the vaccine rollout, county public health officials were looking at routine immunization rates to get a feel for where they could assume there might be less people getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It wasn’t spot on, but it gave us a good idea that turned out to be true,” Albert said.

In the last month, the percentage of St. Louis County residents with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine has increased by 3%. Roughly 63% of people in the county age 12 and older have had at least one dose as of Wednesday.

“It's hard to say whether we'll reach that 70% goal,” Westbrook said. “We're really, we're really trying to, but it's really creeping along right now.”

While COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all decreased, primarily because those at increased risk of severe disease have been vaccinated, Westbrook said, the pandemic is not over.

“We’re still in a pandemic,” Westbrook said. “The virus is still mutating. We’re still seeing pockets of unvaccinated people. I’ve heard people say the pandemic is over and it isn’t. That’s a hard statement to hear.”