Mobile ‘strike team’ brings COVID vaccine to the most vulnerable

A woman receives a vaccine.
CentraCare Health nurse Dawn Conklin preps Sister Chinh Nguyen before administering the COVID-19 vaccination shot Friday at St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. The CentraCare mobile vaccination strike team set up a clinic at St. Benedict's to provide vaccinations for more than 100 members of the community.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Shortly before 10 a.m., the sisters of St. Benedict's Monastery started to trickle into their gathering place outside of Sacred Heart Chapel.

Usually, they use this spacious area, with its marble columns and arches, for events and socializing. But last Friday, health care workers had set up tables with laptops and syringes.

The first to receive a shot of COVID-19 vaccine was Sister Katherine Kraft, 82.

"We've been waiting,” Kraft said. “But we've been fortunate because no sister has gotten sick with COVID, and that's quite remarkable.”

Because of their age and their close living arrangements, the women are at high risk from the coronavirus. But traveling to a clinic or hospital to get a vaccination would be a challenge for many of them.

So, the vaccine came to them.

People stand in line near a table
The gathering place at St. Benedict's Monastery was turned into a temporary vaccination center Friday for members of the community.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"We're reaching populations that might otherwise either struggle to get the vaccine at all or just not get it, and then they could be at risk,” said Ashley Jude, program coordinator with CentraCare, which operates eight hospitals and 30 clinics across central Minnesota.

Jude oversees CentraCare’s mobile “strike team,” which aims to reach people who are considered high priority to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but who might be reluctant or unable to come to a vaccination site.

That could mean people living in a homeless shelter, or in a group home for people with developmental disabilities or spinal cord injuries, said Dr. George Morris, medical incident commander for CentraCare’s COVID-19 response team.

“This is targeted for the most vulnerable, the most at risk, the individuals or the situations where it's harder for them to come to us,” Morris said.

Two women look at a laptop
Program coordinator Ashley Jude (right) helps nurse Dawn Conklin with a computer issue. The CentraCare employees are part of a mobile vaccination strike team that set up a clinic Friday at the St. Benedict's Monastery to provide vaccinations for more than 100 members of the community.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

CentraCare assembled this mobile strike team last year to bring COVID-19 testing to targeted communities. Beginning last week, through a contract with the Minnesota Department of Health, CentraCare began using the mobile approach to deliver vaccines to 38 counties, across the state from Moorhead, Minn., to Wisconsin and in southwest Minnesota.

CentraCare officials say they follow state and federal guidelines to identify which populations should be targeted first, including people over age 65 and those who live in congregate care. Once the site is chosen, Morris said the vaccine is given to everyone there who wants it, even if they don’t meet the age threshold.

“If they have a 50-year-old that also lives there that would meet other criteria, then we're just going to (vaccinate) them as part of that outreach,” Morris said. “Once you have a large enough number, it's much more efficient and effective to just catch everybody in that place.”

Once health officials have identified a location and scheduled a visit, Jude assembles a team of vaccinators, who volunteer to take on the additional duties on top of their regular work. The team includes administrative workers to register patients and nurses to give the shots.

Having the mobile team come to St. Benedict’s Monastery was a blessing, said Sister Pat Sniezek, director of monastery health services. Many of the sisters need assistance getting to the doctor, she said, so getting everyone to a clinic to receive the vaccine would have been challenging.

A nurse administers a vaccination shot to a woman sitting.
Sister Katherine Kraft of the Order of St. Benedict holds herself steady as nurse Dawn Conklin administers the COVID-19 vaccination shot Friday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"This is great because everybody's getting it at the same time,” Sniezek said.

The sisters attribute their good health to being diligent about wearing masks, social distancing and limiting contact with the community.

The restrictions have been difficult for the sisters, who typically play an active role on the College of St. Benedict campus. A program that partners sisters with a St. Ben’s student to share meals and companionship has been virtual instead, and college students aren’t able to attend worship services at the monastery.

But there are benefits to living in a close-knit community during a pandemic, said Sister Karen Rose.

"Even though we haven't been able to go out much and we haven't had people in, we've been blessed,” Rose said. “We don't really suffer from social isolation here."

The sisters of St. Benedict were eager to get vaccinated. But CentraCare officials also hope the mobile team approach might help increase participation in communities where people are more hesitant to receive the vaccine.

“We are seeing that when you bring something to an entire unit, housing area or a group, it's felt to be much more welcoming,” Morris said. “We're bringing this to you, it's safe and we can make it very convenient. That breaks down a lot of those barriers that otherwise would be a challenge for many people.”

A woman administers a vaccine to a person sitting in a chair.
CentraCare Health nurse Amy McAnnay dministers the COVID-19 vaccination shot Friday at St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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