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As cold, flu season nears, health professionals again stress Covid-19 vaccine best 'shot'

People ask physician Dan Palmquist why he’s so adamant about encouraging the Covid-19 vaccination.

“I tell them, ‘You go to a tire salesman, you expect to be sold tires,’” said Dr. Palmquist, of Community Memorial Hospital and Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.

“If you go to a family doc, expect to be lectured about getting vaccinated,” he added. “It’s how we make the biggest impact on the lives of our patients.”

Palmquist joined Carlton County public health nurse specialist Jenny Barta, who coordinates the disease prevention and control program, in speaking with the Pine Knot last week about the current spread of Covid-19 in the community.

Barta started by noting the current spread is significant, toggling between moderate and high transmission depending on the week. Unlike last summer, when disease figures were low, the community is heading into the new school year and cold and flu season on an ominous note.

“This is still off-peak, and we don’t have a super high number of hospitalizations,” Barta said. “But typically in summertime, hospitals see more traumas and general medical concerns, not so much circulating respiratory illness. We have still seen individuals admitted to the hospital who have tested positive for Covid.”

There were 57 cases of Covid-19 reported within the county in the week leading to Aug. 13, according to the most recent data available from the county. All told, there have been more than 9,700 cases in Carlton County since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

The data likely skews low, Barta said. Not everybody gets tested, and those who use at-home tests often don’t report their results or illness.

“There is likely more disease spreading than what is confirmed,” Barta said. “We have moderate levels of Covid circulating, and we have PCR tests that indicate we have disease spreading.”

Barta addressed the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends people with close exposure wear a mask for 10 days and test after five. No longer are folks being asked to quarantine after an exposure.

“With this shift we’re kind of moving to a new stage and we’re learning how to live more with Covid,” Barta said. “We know more about it. It’s not going away. Each person, family and community is learning their acceptable level of risk. We know we want to get back to some sense of normalcy. This change in guidance is, in a way, helping us to learn to live with Covid.”

Dr. Palmquist noted that the latest circulating variants, locally Omicron and its subvariants, are less deadly.

“But as new variants arise, we remain at risk for future potential outbreaks,” Dr. Palmquist said. “The current vaccine remains our best ‘shot’ against serious disease and even death from Covid.”

He called it “a shame” that only about 20 percent of children under 12 nationally have been vaccinated so far, and noted that the roughly 500 children dead nationwide from Covid-19 is equivalent to the number that died last year in car crashes.

“Future death and serious Covid disease is preventable with the vaccine,” he said.

With new vaccinations aimed at subvariants arriving soon, both Barta and the physician addressed waiting versus keeping up to date with the existing vaccine.

“If you are at high risk of severe disease and due for a Covid booster, talk to your primary care provider to determine whether it’s appropriate for you right now with what is currently circulating,” Barta said.

“The vaccine we have is very effective in preventing serious disease,” Dr. Palmquist added, encouraging vaccination.

While more than 25,000 people in Carlton County have received a first dose of vaccine, according to the Minnesota Department of Health only 10,500 are up to date with their boosters.

With the cold and flu season arriving soon, Dr. Palmquist noted the hospital and clinic have been giving flu and Covid-19 vaccines together throughout the pandemic — with no serious adverse reactions with the combination of the two. He expects this year’s flu vaccine to arrive by September.

Barta noted progress toward a “bivalent” Covid-19 vaccine, expecting it to arrive soon. Like the quadrivalent flu vaccine — which features four strains of flu in an effort to maximize effectiveness — the bivalent Covid-19 vaccine will feature two strains: an Omicron-specific strain and another “wild-type strain,” she said.

“We have access to vaccination from the earliest age up until the end of life,” Barta said. “We’ve worked hard to break down disparities.”

The county conducted a vaccination clinic for children ages 6 months to 5 years early in the month, but most children that age aren’t receiving vaccinations in the way adults did, she said.

She posited that a reason for the slower rollout of the children’s vaccine has been because most families aren’t using drive-up clinics or pharmacies in the way a lot of adults have done throughout the pandemic.

“It’s being done in a more intimate setting,” Barta said. “Typically, it’s within a medical facility with their primary care provider. This age group sees their provider more often, with well-child checkup visits and such. Vaccination series are part of those visits.”

From the provider’s perspective, any time is a good time to get vaccinated.

“If you get Covid after you’re vaccinated,” Dr. Palmquist said, “you’re much less likely to spread it if you’re fully vaccinated with our current vaccines.”