Bus depot pop-up clinics highlight state's evolving vaccine strategy

Two women talk to a woman filling out paperwork.
St. Louis County public health workers Emily Lian and Stephany Medina (left) answer Chelsea Albin’s questions about COVID-19 vaccines at a pop-up clinic at the Duluth Transportation Center on Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

On Tuesday afternoon, St. Louis public health nurse Emily Lian sat down with Chelsea Albin at the Duluth Transportation Center, explaining different COVID-19 vaccine options.

"If you do Johnson & Johnson, it’s one and then you’re done,” explained Lian. “No more?” asked Albin. “None,” replied Lian.

Albin was waiting to take a bus to her home in western Duluth after finishing work as a dishwasher at a nearby Perkins restaurant. She eventually decided on the Pfizer vaccine when she learned she could get a second dose in three weeks.

She filled out her paperwork, and then walked to a small room behind the check-desk, where she was greeted by another nurse, Hillary Boyce-Schimpff, who asked some more questions before dispensing the shot.

"Congratulations! I’m so glad you came!” said Boyce-Schimpff.

Albin, 30, had always planned to get vaccinated. She just hadn't gotten around to it yet.

“I feel like everybody should get vaccinated,” she said after getting her first dose. “You know, my whole family should take it. If they don't take it, they don't take it. But you know what, I feel safe taking it anyway."

But it took a very convenient pop-up clinic, right on her bus route home from work, to turn Albin from someone who planned to get vaccinated, to an actual shot in an arm.

"I think there are still a lot of people who are willing to get the vaccine, if it’s easy, if it’s accessible, and if it’s something that they don’t have to go out of their way to get. Those are the people we really want to facilitate the process for,” said Amy Westbrook, public health director for St. Louis County, Minn.

A sign sits near a street where a bus is parked.
The St. Louis County public health department offered free, walk-up COVID-19 vaccines at the Duluth Transportation Center, part of a growing effort to break down barriers for people who want to get the vaccine.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Vaccine clinics like this one in Duluth are emblematic of a shift in the state's effort to get more eligible people vaccinated. When the vaccine was first made widely available, some people went to extraordinary lengths to get it — spending hours searching for an appointment online, or driving halfway across the state for an available shot.

Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that 2 million Minnesotans have now received a complete COVID-19 vaccine dose. And nearly 60 percent of the state’s eligible population has received at least one shot. But moving forward, officials say it’s only going to get more difficult to vaccinate people.

"Now we have entered into this next phase where we are having to get really creative about how we reach out to people,” said Rebecca Paulson, another public health nurse who works on St. Louis County's mobile vaccinating team, which has put on more than 100 small, pop-up clinics around the county.

"For lack of a better way to say it, we’re really meeting people where they’re at,” she explained.

The trade-off is it takes a lot more effort to reach a lot fewer people than at the beginning of the vaccine rollout. In the first hour and a half of Tuesday's event in Duluth, Paulson said they vaccinated 15 people.

"And right now that feels really good,” she said. “Thinking back, we were running vaccine clinics in the southern part of St. Louis County where we were getting 800 people through a day. And so when you compare 800 to 15, it may sound like a little, but at this point, 15 is really significant."

As Minnesota enters this next phase of vaccine distribution, public health officials say success will have to be measured differently.

"Anytime we now move up by a percentage point in terms of Minnesotans who are vaccinated, that's a big deal, because the work to reach people is necessarily going to be a bit harder in this stage, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s director of infectious disease.

Still, St. Louis county nurse Lian said she felt encouraged by what she saw at the Duluth Transportation Center.

A woman sits as a nurse administers a shot.
Hillary Boyce-Schimpff (right) a St. Louis County public health nurse, gives a COVID-19 vaccine shot to Chelsea Albin (left) of Duluth, at a pop-up vaccine clinic at the downtown Duluth Transportation Center.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"I feel like we’ve had more takers than I thought we would,” she said. “I think we kind of went into this thinking that we’d be heavier on the education piece, with a lot of people that were hesitant about it. And I’ve seen way more people just come up here and ask to just get the vaccine right away."

Officials like Lian say if someone hasn’t gotten vaccinated yet, people often assume that person is in denial about COVID-19, or against vaccines. But a lot of people are simply dealing with logistical barriers. They couldn't get off work. They had to take care of their kids. Or they needed somewhere easier to get to.

Data suggests that there’s a relatively low level of vaccine resistance in Minnesota compared to some other states, said St. Louis County’s Paulson.

“What that tells me is we really have to think deeply, creatively, and be very intentional about how we get the word out to reach people.”

Moving forward, the county is looking at bringing vaccine clinics outdoors as the weather warms, to events like farmers markets.

Officials hope events like that will help reach people like Karen Moore, 76, of Duluth, who relies on the bus to get around, and hasn't been able to get on the internet to make an appointment because the public library has remained closed.

She was thrilled to learn that vaccines would be available at the downtown transit center.

"I've been waiting for an opportunity to get the vaccine, hoping it would be at a convenient location, and hoping it would be the Johnson, so I'd be one and done. And today’s the day,” she said.

Moore even got a free bus ride home — a little extra incentive the Duluth Transit Authority offered to encourage more people to get a COVID-19 shot.

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