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Minnesota & Dakota County lead the nation for COVID booster shots, but big challenges remain

More 65+ Minnesotans have their vaccines and first booster than anywhere else in the country. Kids are another story.

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. — Less than a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed off on COVID-19 booster shots for kids 5-11 years old, vaccination sites in Minnesota began taking reservations.

The state vaccination site at the Mall of America is already offering doses of the Pfizer booster for that age group, and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says families can contact their care provider about availability elsewhere.

How many kids and families seek out the booster remains to be seen. According to MDH, less than 40% of kids, ages 5 to 11, have the first doses of the vaccine in Minnesota. 

But if there is a state that can improve that statistic, it would appear to be Minnesota. It has quietly become a national leader for booster shots, particularly among seniors.

For John Kennedy and Lisa Sieben, of Dakota County, a second COVID booster didn't require a second thought.

"We just really feel strongly that we need to be vaccinated, in order to protect an adult son with a disability," Sieben said. "We're trying to keep everyone safe."

But even if you don't consider it an easy decision to get a shot, there is no debate that, in Dakota County, the process itself, is as easy as it gets.

"I love how convenient this is," said Dawn Knudsen-Dahm, who elected to get her second booster shot at the Dakota County Service Center in Apple Valley. "I feel like it's the one thing we can all do to protect each other and it's so easy."

Dakota County, like several Minnesota counties, offers a wide range of options for both vaccine walk-ins and appointments. Public health experts say that kind of accessibility has helped Minnesota set itself apart, nationally.

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According to CDC data, Minnesota ranks second in the country with 61% of people aged 12 and older having a first booster dose. That jumps to a nation-leading 83% with people 65 and older.

According to a recent report by Kaiser Health News, the booster performance doesn't get any better than in Dakota County, which has the highest percentage of people 65 and older with at least one booster.

"We were surprised, but we were also really proud," said Christine Lees, Public Health Supervisor for Dakota County. "We've been working at this for so long that seeing our rates being that high was really a proud moment."

Lees says the long-standing vaccine availability at Dakota County service centers has contributed to the success, but she says it's also thanks to outreach efforts like mobile vaccination clinics and vaccination teams that helped offer vaccines and boosters to residents and staff in local nursing homes. 

"I think what we've learned during the last two years is that you really have to use a variety of strategies for reaching different populations," she said. "There's really no one-size-fits-all to helping people get access to vaccinations."

And when it comes to the smallest patients eligible for vaccines, she admits the county and the state still have a long way to go. In the coming days, she knows they'll begin to see an influx of families seeking boosters for their kids in elementary school, but she said that won't last long.

"One of our challenges is going to be when we start to see the tapering off of people coming in," Lees said. "How do we keep getting that message out for that age group?"

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Here's the issue. According to MDH, while a whopping 91% of Dakota County residents 65 and older are now up to date on their vaccinations, just 55% of residents 5 and older can say the same. Statewide, just 49% of everyone 5 and older is up to date. 

Lees says addressing that disparity, especially among kids, will likely require new outreach into communities and working more closely with schools.

"I think right now, people have kind of reached that point of they are used to (COVID) being here, which is something that we're going to continue to see change in our population," Lees said. "What's important with boosters is just to let people know that those doses are what is keeping our hospitalizations — as well as people getting really sick, and deaths — down."

Lees says that has always been a key to their success. She says outreach and informational teams will regularly visit communities before a vaccination event comes and a needle ever goes in an arm. She says they're committed to keeping that up, no matter how long it takes.

"That one to one interaction, when you can talk to somebody and help them with their concerns, we have found that to be really important," Lees said. "Our clinic today has people coming in for first boosters and even their first doses. We think it's really important that if you haven't gotten vaccinated it's never too late."

Lees says the recent rise in COVID cases, along with expanded boosters, have made for busier clinics in the last month and a half. According to MDH, Dakota County has administered three times as many doses in April than it did in March. Total doses also nearly tripled across Minnesota in that timeframe.

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