by CHRIS ROGERS
Local coronavirus vaccination drives continued their strong pace this past week, COVID-safety restrictions on businesses in Minnesota and nursing homes across the country were loosened, and Wisconsin announced plans to immunize the medically vulnerable.
Scores of Winonans waited in a line that wrapped around Winona Health’s Parkview Office Building last Thursday for a walk-in COVID vaccination clinic that distributed 400 doses in a single day before running out. Winona County and partners delivered a steady stream of shots, as did local pharmacies. Altogether 3,919 Winona County residents received a shot last week, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which is roughly on par with last week’s record-setting number. As of Sunday, 29 percent of the county’s population had received at least one dose and 12.6 percent had received a complete vaccine series.
Vaccines in Minnesota are currently open to certain essential workers and people with underlying medical conditions. For a listing of Minnesota vaccination sites, visit mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/locations/index.jsp. To sign up for Winona County’s vaccination clinics, visit www.co.winona.mn.us/page/3841 or call 507-457-6375 on weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Vaccinations in Trempealeau County set a new record in the first week of March, the latest available data, with 1,804 shots given in one week, according to state data. Nearly 27 percent of county residents have been vaccinated, five percentage points ahead of the state average. “We are all working together to get people vaccinated and it’s been going really well,” Trempealeau County Health Department Public Information Officer Kaila Baer said. Unlike many localities where vaccine seekers must hunt for open appointments in many different signup systems, Trempealeau County has operated one, centralized registration system for the various vaccine sites, Baer reported.
Buffalo County mustered far fewer — 535 vaccinations — in the first week of March, down from a high of 770 shots in mid-February.
For information on where to get vaccines in Wisconsin, visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/vaccine-map.htm or call 844-684-1064. To sign up for Buffalo County’s vaccination clinics, visit www.buffalocounty.com/511/Vaccine-Interest-Form. To sign up for Trempealeau County’s vaccination clinics, visit hipaa.jotform.com/210336562588157 or call 715-538-2311, ext. 220.
MN business capacity limits eased
From local bars to Twins games, and even Mid West Music Fest, life in Minnesota will start looking a bit more like normal, as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s latest rollback of COVID-safety restrictions took effect on Monday. “It is becoming increasingly more safe to return to our daily lives. The sun is shining brighter,” Walz said.
The governor’s latest executive order sets the following limits:
• “Social gatherings: Up to 50 people outdoors or 15 people for indoor gatherings, both without household limits.
• Youth sports: Pod size increasing to 50 for outdoor activities.
• Religious services: Remove occupancy limit, but social distancing required.
• Celebrations: Follow venue guidance.
• Bars and restaurants: Increasing allowable occupancy to 75 percent, up from 50 percent, with a limit of 250 people. The limits apply separately indoors and outdoors. Bar seating increases to parties of four.
• Salons/barbers: Removing the occupancy limit, but social distancing required.
• Gyms/fitness centers/pools: Increasing allowable occupancy to 50 percent, up from 25 percent. Outdoor classes can increase to 50 people.
• Entertainment venues: Increasing allowable occupancy to 50 percent, up from 25 percent, both indoors and outdoors, with a limit of 250.”
Walz set higher limits for venues with capacities over 500, such as outdoor music venues and sports stadiums.
For local restaurants, “This is the most indoor capacity they’ve had in a year,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom pointed out. “Who thought we would be in this place a year later where we’re ecstatic about 75 percent capacity in a bar or restaurant?” she continued. Still, Ransom said, “People are excited to have some movement forward.” While stressing the importance of listening to health experts, she added, “As a chamber professional, it’s important for me to find some sort of pathway or plan to the complete reopening of businesses. So we’re definitely leaning on the governor to have some sort of plan.”
MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm added a note of caution to Walz’s announcement, warning that fast-spreading, potentially more dangerous COVID variants could still cause a spike in hospitalizations. She urged Minnesotans to continue practicing basic precautions — social distancing, testing, and masking. “We know we have a ways to go to get everyone vaccinated and to get this, to keep this virus under control,” Malcom said. “But we know we can do it. Even as we increase our interaction with each other, paying attention to these basic prevention measures is the thing that is going to allow that progress to continue.”
More information on the reopening rules are available at staysafe.mn.gov.
Feds, MDH relax rules on nursing home visits
New guidance from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and MDH cleared the way for more visits in nursing homes. Previous guidelines had restricted family visits when the virus’ prevalence in local communities was high among other criteria, but after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised that small group, mask-less visits with vaccinated people were acceptable, CMS updated their guidelines to allow indoor visits so long as 70-percent of the nursing homes’ population was vaccinated, local test positivity rates are under 10 percent, and facility residents aren’t currently in isolation or quarantine.
Winona County’s latest positivity rate was 2.2 percent and Buffalo County’s was 7.4 percent, while Trempealeau County was still over the CMS threshold with a rate of 10.7 percent, according to state and county data.
WI: Vaccines for medically at-risk start March 29
Some 2 million Wisconsinites with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness from COVID will be eligible for vaccines starting on March 29, the state’s Department of Health Services (DHS) announced on Thursday, while also projecting vaccines would be available for the general public starting in May.
“We urge those eligible and at highest risk to get vaccinated because each shot in arms means we are one step closer to getting back to our Wisconsin way of life,” Gov. Tony Evers said.
The list of qualifying health conditions includes: “Asthma (moderate-to-severe); cancer; cerebrovascular disease; chronic kidney disease; COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease); cystic fibrosis; Down syndrome; heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies; hypertension or high blood pressure; immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines; liver disease; neurologic conditions, such as dementia; obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30-39 kilograms per square meter); overweight (BMI of 25-29 kilograms per square meter); pregnancy; pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues); sickle cell disease; type 1 or 2 diabetes mellitus; and, thalassemia (a type of blood disorder).”
Being eligible for a vaccine and actually snagging an appointment are two different things, and DHS expected it would take weeks to vaccinate all at-risk Wisconsinites.
Local infections low
New COVID cases remained relatively low across the local area this past week, a trend that has held for a full month now. There were 29 new cases in Winona County this week, on par with 32 last week, and no new deaths reported, according to the MDH. Buffalo County had only one new confirmed case this week, down from two last week. Trempealeau County had five new cases, down from 11 last week. In both Buffalo and Trempealeau counties, the test positivity rate remains high, a possible sign that there are more infections going around than are being detected through testing.