by CHRIS ROGERS
The last time new COVID infection rates were this low, it was 90 degrees outside. While the local area is enjoying its lowest transmission levels in months, vaccine scarcity is still hampering efforts to protect people from outbreaks. Aiming to make the hunt for available doses a bit easier, Winona County opened a vaccine waiting list to the general public over age 65 for the first time last week, and the state of Minnesota launched a notification system for vaccine seekers.
Where to find local vaccines
Want a COVID vaccine? Join the waiting list. Or, more accurately, join the many different waiting lists. In its effort to get shots to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, Minnesota has taken an “all of the above” approach to vaccine distribution. Pharmacies, medical clinics, county health departments, and the state itself are all running vaccination sites, each with their own separate signup systems. Currently, only adults 65 and older, health care workers, congregate living residents, and K-12 educators and child workers are eligible for COVID vaccines.
To help people navigate all these different signup systems, Minnesota officials created a list of locations offering vaccines — available at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/locations/index.jsp — and a web- and phone-based notification system called the Vaccine Connector —vaccineconnector.mn.gov or 833-431-2053 — that alerts Minnesotans of the chance to get on vaccination waitlists, though separate signups with the vaccination site are still necessary. Eligible people who sign up with the Vaccine Connector will also be automatically entered into the lottery for vaccination appointments at state-run clinics; the nearest is in Rochester, Minn.
For vaccine seekers who want to go straight to the source, there are numerous local organizations offering vaccines, though open slots are hard to come by.
Hy-Vee pharmacies in Winona, St. Charles, and other Southeast Minnesota cities are now offering COVID vaccines, according to the company’s website and state officials. To sign up, visit www.hy-vee.com/my-pharmacy/covid-vaccine-consent. A Hy-Vee spokesperson said that the website is currently the only way to sign up, but an in-store option is in the works.
The Winona Walmart is one of many Minnesota Walmart pharmacies now offering limited supplies of COVID vaccines. “To check availability and schedule an appointment, visit: www.walmart.com/COVIDvaccine,” the company advised.
La Crosse and Eau Claire, Wis., stores are among the 178 Wisconsin Walgreens locations that received some vaccines from the federal government, according to the Appleton Post-Crescent and Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), and Minnesota officials reported that the Rochester Walgreens stores are also offering doses. Walgreens’ appointment system — www.walgreens.com/findcare/vaccination/covid-19 — showed all of those locations as being fully booked for the time being.
Most health care systems are telling vaccine seekers, don’t call us; we’ll call you. Winona Health said that eligible Winona Health patients will receive a phone call when a vaccination appointment slot is available; they don’t need to do anything to sign up. People who are not Winona Health patients can join the waitlist by visiting www.winonahealth.org and clicking “COVID-19 Vaccination Wait List” or by calling 507-457-7619. As the number of available doses increases, Winona Health staff said they will start notifying patients through the web-based MyWinonaHealth portal, as well as by phone.
When a shot is available to its patients, Gundersen Health System said they would receive a message in Gundersen’s web-based MyChart portal or a phone call. That includes anyone who has been seen at a Gundersen location in the last three years; Gundersen isn’t currently offering vaccinations to people outside its existing patient population, Administrative Director of Minnesota and Iowa Operations Chuck Johnson said. “We ask you [to] refrain from calling or emailing Gundersen about COVID-19 vaccine appointments or about vaccine availability or eligibility and urge you to return to this page for the latest information,” Gundersen Health System told patients on gundersenhealth.org.
Local public health departments are also running vaccination clinics. Winona, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Fillmore, and Houston counties all have online vaccine signup systems where eligible residents of those counties can join a waitlist.
Winona County’s registration form is available at form.jotform.com/winonaco_em/over65. Residents without internet access may call 507-457-6375 on weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to sign up. Individuals must be Winona County residents and age 65 or older to qualify. “As vaccine supply permits, staff will randomly select from the list and call or email to make sure you can receive the vaccine and schedule appointments,” Winona County officials explained in a press release.
Trempealeau County’s signup form is available at hipaa.jotform.com/210336562588157. “If you do not have internet access, ask a family member or friend to help you fill it out or leave a message at 715-538-2311 ext. 220,” the Trempealeau County Health Department advised.
Buffalo County’s is at form.jotform.com/210135164180140.
Fillmore and Houston counties’ signup forms are at hipaa.jotform.com/210288047948060 and hipaa.jotform.com/210168093702046, respectively. Fillmore County residents without internet access may sign up by calling 507-765-2601, Tuesday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Winona County launched its new signup system last week. Previously it had relied on Winona Health, Gundersen Health System, and county social service programs for referrals of 65-plus patients. Now, for the first time, county residents not on those lists may sign up for a vaccine.
Storms delay doses
Progress on vaccinations stumbled this past week. From late January to mid-February, Winona County maintained a pace of 1,000-1,500 residents per week getting their first shot, according to MDH data. However, from Feb. 14-20, just 550 Winona County residents received their first shot. Trempealeau County saw less of a slowdown: 1,237 residents received a shot last week, compared to 1,431 the week before.
Winter storms across the U.S. caused vaccine shipments due last week to be delayed until the first half of this week, which in turn slightly delayed this week’s normal shipments, MDH Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said. “We hope to be back to normal operations and scheduling within the next week or so,” she explained.
So far, 14 percent of Winona County’s population has received at least one dose, according to MDH. That’s on par with statewide numbers: 13.5 percent of the population has received at least one dose.
Trempealeau and Buffalo counties are ahead of the statewide average in Wisconsin. Sixteen percent of Buffalo County residents — 2,088 people — and nearly 17 percent of Trempealeau County residents — 4,940 people — have received at least one dose, compared to 14 percent of Wisconsinites statewide, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).
COVID infections lowest in months
Three months ago, at the height of the last surge, Winona County saw more than 350 new COVID cases a week. This past week, there were just 30, according to MDH. That’s on par with last week’s 28 new cases. There hasn’t been a new COVID death in the county in a month. This is the lowest Winona County infection rates have been since last August.
In Buffalo and Trempealeau counties, new infections per capita are even lower: 3.8 new cases per 100,000 residents in Trempealeau County and 4.4 in Buffalo County, compared to 8.5 in Winona County, according to state data. Trempealeau County reported eight new cases this week, down from 38 last week. Buffalo County reported just four new cases this week, down from 16 last week.
Ehresmann and other MDH leaders cautioned citizens not to let down their guards or stop practicing COVID precautions — such as staying six feet apart, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces — and they pointed to a number of recent cases tied to gyms, restaurants, and bars. “There is a risk in any indoor setting that brings people from different households together,” Ehresmann said.