By Jordan Gerard
Editor, The Caledonia Argus
The first COVID-19 vaccine doses are here in Houston County, and slowly but surely, frontline health care workers and emergency personnel have had the choice to get vaccinated.
Those who were vaccinated expressed gratitude for the vaccine, and are encouraging others to get vaccinated once it is available. Houston County received the Moderna vaccine.
Caledonia Ambulance Director Mike Tornstrom got his first dose on New Year’s Eve at Houston County Public Health, and said he had no concerns about the safety of the vaccine. Trusting the science and getting vaccinated is vital to protecting yourself and getting the pandemic over with, he cited.
“Get the economy and state of Minnesota moving again,” Tornstrom said. “It’s time to get this over with. We’re doing our part.”
Members of the department were not required to be vaccinated and some chose not to receive the vaccine.
For Tornstrom, a vaccine means going back to a state of normalcy. Emergency medical services and ambulance crew have been under additional stress due to the pandemic.
“Each time we haul a COVID patient, we have concerns about getting sick,” he said. The crew spends an average of 45 minutes in the back of the ambulance while transporting patients, but not one crew member has contracted COVID from a patient who was positive, Tornstrom said.
Personnel have been wearing personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, gloves, face shields and gowns. They also wash their clothes after each ambulance run that had a COVID-positive patient.
For about four weeks in between November and December, Tornstrom said half of the patients were COVID-positive, with many of the same patients taking two separate trips.
“Almost every patient had COVID that week,” he said. Recently, the ambulance has transported less COVID patients.
Tornstrom paraphrased what the crew heard from COVID patients while transporting them.
“I’ve never been so sick in my life. They wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy. Am I going to die?” he noted.
Tornstrom added the ambulance service encourages anyone that is available to get the vaccine, take it and research credible sources. He added community members can also talk to an ambulance member who received it.
Caledonia Ambulance Assistant Director Mark Schiltz said a good majority of the department received the vaccine with no complications.
Jail staff and deputies also had the option to receive the vaccine as well. Now, each person who received the first dose will wait about 28 days before receiving the second dose.
Schiltz said he did a lot of research about the vaccine, and the department received information through Gundersen in La Crosse or Mayo in Rochester. The southeastern EMS district was also helpful in hosting informational meetings.
“If you do research, make sure it’s reliable research,” he said. “Contact your medical provider yourself and ask them questions.”
Brownsville Fire and EMS Training Officer Brandon Frank received his vaccination in the first week of January at public health.
Citing the same trust in the science as Tornstrom, Frank said discussions, conversations and information relayed to his department came from the medical director at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“Any potential side effects are extremely minor. Getting COVID is going to be significantly worse than not getting the vaccine,” he said.
Frank said the worst thing was a sore arm from taking the shot, but notes he was still able to pick his kids up and be a dad.
Once department members start receiving the vaccine, he hoped they would have the ability to go back to normal, which means face-to-face trainings, no longer being “alone together” on Zoom and practicing techniques instead of just talking about it. He’s also looking forward to teaching at Western Technical College in person again.
Additionally, the vaccine was “an amazing amount of relief.”
“I have that protection now,” Frank said. “It definitely helped eased the anxiety of the potential of getting COVID-19.”
Both departments said even though a majority of their personnel is vaccinated, they likely won’t take away the masks and gowns just yet.
Frank said the department will likely keep using the protective equipment as long as the numbers are staying in the high range for the greater Brownsville area. The department will continue to take precautions, and won’t do away with those measures until the numbers go down.
He added they may use masks in the future if patients cite having trouble breathing or if they don’t feel good. The department’s medical director mentioned the country as a whole has been too relaxed about airborne diseases in the past 10-20 years.
Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) announced on Jan. 14, the vaccine can be expanded to people aged 65 and over, if vaccine providers have available vaccine. On the same day, Houston County Public Health said though they are committed to administering the vaccine as soon as possible, the county does not have available vaccine and have no date for the next allotment of the vaccine.
Public Health gave an update at the most recent Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 5.
Director of Public Health John Pugleasa said many people have contacted them asking when they would be able to get vaccinated.
The county receiving vaccines is great news, however, they’re not sure how often they would receive the vaccines, Public Health Supervisor Heather Myhre noted.
Five nurses in public health have been administering the vaccine to EMS personnel. She also mentioned the possibility of volunteers who are licensed as part of their profession to provide vaccinations and have the skills and training to do so. This group of volunteers would need to complete the training on the MDH website. Eventually, that might include area pharmacies administering the vaccine.
In addition to EMS personnel receiving the vaccines, health care providers, long-term care residents and long-term care staff can also receive the vaccine. That is group 1A, as defined by MDH.
Pugleasa encouraged people who are not part of 1A to contact their health care provider or Public Health to get a sense of when the vaccine may be available to them. Public Health is available at 507-725-5810.
Editor’s note: The intention of this article is not to scare, it is to educate and encourage. We encourage our readers to be educated on the vaccine and make an informed decision for themselves. We also encourage if readers have any concerns, they should reach out to their medical provider.