“Locally, vaccinations have been very stagnant,” she said. “At Essentia, anyone walking into any of our clinics can get a COVID vaccine. It’s noted on their chart if they had the vaccines or not and we’re alerted to offer it to those who aren’t vaccinated. But we’re finding consistently that people decline it.”

A July 13 community briefing from CHI St. Joseph’s Health showed only 48 percent of Hubbard County residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated. That’s the lowest in the region followed by 50 percent in Wadena County, 52 percent in Cass County, 56 percent in Becker County and 58 percent in Beltrami County. The overall vaccination rate for the state of Minnesota is much higher at 67.5 percent.

Thieman said there are many reasons people don’t want the vaccine and most are not based in science.

“One thing that might help is when the vaccines are fully approved by the FDA and not on an emergency use basis,” she said. “A lot of people think that since it’s not technically approved by the FDA, why would they want to experiment with it?

“There are also people who are healthy and feel that if they get COVID they will be fine. They may be right, but there’s no way to know. We’ve seen many people who are healthy getting very, very, very sick with COVID. There are also a lot of post-COVID symptoms we’re just starting to understand, like losing the sense of smell for 6-12 months, problems with chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain. But it seems to fall on deaf ears.”

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Thieman said people who have already tested positive for COVID should still be vaccinated. “They will have some immunity after getting COVID but it may only last 90 days,” she said. “As the virus continues to mutate, they’re at increased risk of getting infected again.”

Dr. Thieman said she is concerned that there are more cases of COVID in the county than the numbers show.

“We are not testing for COVID much at all, either because patients don’t want us to test them or their symptoms aren’t a slam dunk for COVID,” she said. “As providers, we’re not thinking as much about testing for COVID as we were six months ago. As a result, we are definitely under capturing how much COVID is circulating in our area.”

Vaccinate now for back to school

The latest CDC guidance says youth who are fully vaccinated may return to school without masks. Yet in Hubbard County, only 16 percent of those 12 and up and 28 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated as of July 15.

“With the Pfizer vaccine it’s a five-week process,” Thieman said. “Three weeks between the two shots and then two weeks after the second shot to be considered fully immunized. The timing is such that students who are going back to school in person this fall should be starting their vaccines now.”

She said that similar to what happened last fall and winter, COVID cases will likely rise once people are gathering more indoors.

Thieman said she knows teenagers who want to be vaccinated because they’re tired of masking and dealing with quarantines.

“But ultimately, it’s up to the parents to decide,” she said. “There’s not an overwhelming sense of urgency or encouragement for vaccination in general here.”

Thieman said if schools choose to follow CDC guidelines, it will be hard to enforce masking because staff won’t know which students are vaccinated.

“I think having all students wear a mask would be the best thing to do, but I would be surprised if that’s what we do in Minnesota,” she said. “Parents have pulled their kids out of school because of masking and schools lose funding. I think the pressure will be on the state government to not require masking. I’d be surprised if the state doesn’t give in to that.”

Gamma and Delta variants

Morrison said so far, the Delta variant has not been detected in Hubbard County.

“Not all samples are tested for variants,” she said. “Variant testing is determined by MDH. The Delta variant is circulating in the US and Minnesota so we can expect its presence here also. The Gamma (Brazilian) variant has been detected in Hubbard County. “

Thieman said she is concerned about the more contagious Delta variant.

“I have read about cases where there is some evidence that the Delta variant tends to result in more significant illness for younger people,” she said. “The Pfizer vaccines are still very effective against the Delta variant, but not quite as effective as against the previous strains. That being said, if you have a normal immune system and you’ve been vaccinated and still test positive for COVID, in all likelihood your symptoms will be mild. The vaccine protects against severe illness and the need for hospitalization.”

Protecting young children

Children under 12 can’t be vaccinated yet, and low vaccination rates in the county are putting them at higher risk.

“I have an 11-year-old, and it is frustrating when people are choosing not to mask because of their own personal beliefs and putting others at risk who aren’t able to be vaccinated,” Thieman said. “When we go out places I tell my son he needs to wear his mask. He’s good about it, because he doesn’t want to get sick, but I know he feels awkward because he’s the only person going into the store wearing a mask.

“Sometimes I mask with him, even though I’ve been vaccinated since January. When we walk into a store, there’s no way to tell who is vaccinated and who is not. Based on the number of people vaccinated in this county, the majority of people are not vaccinated and they’re not wearing masks. We’re behaving as if nothing has happened.”

Thieman said she knows of families with younger children who are limiting their activities because they can’t be vaccinated and are at increased risk for COVID.

“As much as we’d all like to get back to normal, we’re not there yet, so we have to make decisions based on what we feel is reasonably safe, and that’s hard to do sometimes,” she said. “Not to make excuses, but I think people are so exhausted they don’t care any more. They just want to enjoy the summer and have a good time and deal with it when we get back to school.

“Undoubtedly, we’re going to have some cases, and it may take a really sick kid or young adult for people to wake up and realize they should rethink vaccination. I know of people locally who were sick enough they had to transfer to Fargo because they needed that level of care.”

The Minnesota Department of Health website provides daily updates on vaccination rates by county and age groups.

View Minnesota COVID-19 vaccination data on State of Minnesota: Vaccine Data.

Sanford Health locations are offering COVID-19 vaccines, including the Park Rapids clinic.

Vaccine appointments can be scheduled via Sanford My Chart, online at sanfordhealth.org

or through a primary care provider.

Anyone needing assistance with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine can call the Sanford Health Nurse Line for assistance at 701-234-5000. This number is available 24 hours

a day, seven days a week.