Like everyone else, I wish this pandemic was behind us. I wish we all could gather with loved ones this holiday season with safe food preparation tips being the only public health topic at the table. But here we are experiencing high COVID-19 transmission rates again; over the last week, we’ve averaged about 150 new cases per day. That’s the highest we’ve experienced since early December of last year.

We’ve been administering vaccines for almost a year now, and the data are unequivocal: COVID-19 vaccines are preventing serious illness and death. As an example, in May in Minnesota, for our most at-risk age group, those age 65 and older, hospitalizations rates were 3.9 per 100,000 people for those fully vaccinated, compared with 114 per 100,000 people among those not vaccinated.

We are seeing a trend in recent months, an increasing number of fully vaccinated people needing hospitalization. By October, the hospitalization rates for that age group had risen to 19.3 per 100,000 while increasing among unvaccinated people to 362.8 per 100,000. People 65 and older who are fully vaccinated are still 19 times less likely to be hospitalized than an unvaccinated person this age.

Recent data suggest that the vaccines’ effectiveness decreases over time. This is exactly why public health experts at the federal, state, and local levels are now urging people who are eligible for a booster to get one.

Booster eligibility just expanded greatly in Minnesota. Now, everyone 18 and older is eligible to receive a booster, with the only requirement that enough time has passed since the previous dose. For anyone who received the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, a booster is recommended after two months. Meanwhile, any adult who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine more than six months ago (before mid-May), now is urged to get a booster.

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Keep in mind, you do not need to receive the same brand of booster as your original vaccination. For instance, if you chose Johnson & Johnson the first time for the convenience of just one dose, it’s OK to request Moderna or Pfizer this time. Also, just like with earlier doses, it takes two weeks after the booster for an individual to have the highest level of protection. As we move into the holiday season, now’s the time to get that booster dose.

Families are understandably eager to gather after altering, or altogether foregoing, traditions last holiday season. With many of the aging adult population having been the first to get vaccinated early in 2021, they are now 10 to 11 months out since getting their vaccine. This means that many of the very people who need the vaccine’s protection the most now may have a lower level of protection, making them more vulnerable.

The median age for vaccinated individuals to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 infection is 73, while for unvaccinated individuals the median age drops to 64. Age continues to be a factor in how serious the disease can be, and we know vaccination matters across all ages. Overall in Minnesota, the hospitalization rate for our friends and family who are unvaccinated is 16 times greater than those who are vaccinated.

Now that eligibility has expanded to include children aged 5-11, we have the opportunity to positively impact our schools as well as our communities. Please consider getting your child vaccinated as soon as possible. Talk to your pediatrician or health care provider about vaccinations. As vaccine uptake increases among children, fewer kids will need to be excluded from school due to exposure or illness, and fewer families and school communities will have their lives and schedules disrupted.

I empathize that, two years into this pandemic, it often feels like we are moving two steps forward and one step back. Expanded eligibility and access to booster doses can go a long way in curbing disease transmission and preventing severe illness. The prevention measures you’ve been hearing for so long also continue to help limit the spread: Wear a mask in indoor public settings and avoid unnecessary large gatherings. If you are sick, stay home. If you’ve been exposed to a positive case, get tested three to five days later or if you develop symptoms.

The way out of this pandemic is with shared responsibility and a trust in each other. Together we can increase our community’s protection — giving fewer chances for the virus to circulate and more opportunities and reasons to celebrate this holiday season.

Amy Westbrook is director of the Public Health Division for St. Louis County. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.



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'Roll up a sleeve,' 'give the gift of health'

“We know that Minnesotans are tired of hearing this, but everyone has to do their part to slow the spread of this virus. … The best way to fight this is for more people to get vaccinated. Health care workers will continue to do their jobs, but we are struggling, and we need help. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, please do so, and then mask up and stay socially distant. …

“Seventy percent of the COVID-19 cases admitted to Minnesota hospitals are people who are not vaccinated. … As Thanksgiving approaches, Minnesota physicians are thankful for the availability of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. We need more people to recognize this, roll up a sleeve, and give the gift of health to yourself, your family, friends, and community.”

— Dr. Randy Rice, president of the 11,000-physician-member Minnesota Medical Association (mnmed.org), in a statement Tuesday with hospitals statewide nearing capacity and after Minnesota became the No. 1 state in the nation for its COVID-19 infection rate