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Sanford Health, Bemidji State discuss next steps in COVID-19 response

More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic shut down colleges and universities across the country, educators and students alike are coming to terms with the return to normalcy and “next steps” as they relate to the pandemic.

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BEMIDJI — More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic shut down colleges and universities across the country, educators and students alike are coming to terms with the return to normalcy and “next steps” as they relate to the pandemic.

In a COVID-19 Town Hall event at Bemidji State University on Thursday, March 31, panelists from Sanford Health in Bemidji and BSU detailed the past two years of the pandemic, vaccination rates and moving forward in a post-COVID world.

“To a certain extent, we talk too much about COVID,” BSU Philosophy Professor Dennis Lunt said. “And to a certain extent, we talk too little about COVID.”

With BSU and NTC’s recent removal of their longstanding mask mandate on March 4, both campus communities are wondering whether COVID is just a thing of the past or if it will cause more problems in the near future.

Vaccine stats

As of the end of February, data from the Minnesota Immunization Information Center indicated that approximately 63% of queried BSU students and 53% of NTC students had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

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This data only includes students who have their vaccinations recorded with the Information Center and doesn’t include students who are enrolled via concurrent enrollment while in high school. It also doesn’t include those who received vaccines from federal sources such as hospitals run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Travis Greene, the vice president for Student Life and Success, confirmed that 71% of residential students had received their initial series of vaccinations — two doses of Moderna or Pfizer, or one dose of Johnson and Johnson — as of February.

“As we know, this is a pandemic that is mutating and changing,” Greene said. “For those of us who chose to get vaccinated, that’s simply one method of mitigation.”

Regarding vaccine hesitancy, Dr. David Wilcox, chief medical officer at Sanford Bemidji, pointed to the development of mRNA vaccines — which Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are considered — years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, specifically in treating SARS and MERS outbreaks.

“The vaccine was evaluated and ‘invented’ over 15 to 20 years ago and we used mRNA vaccines to get rid of SARS and MERS, other forms of coronavirus,” Wilcox said. “We created all the technology then, but those pandemics kind of burned themselves out.”

The Food and Drug Administration allowed for concurrent clinical trials and evaluation, which effectively compressed the vaccine production timeline to less than a year. It typically takes 10 to 15 years to produce a vaccine.

“Having had that science completed years prior allowed the vaccine to advance in the matter that it did,” said Kelly Hagen, vice president of nursing and clinical services at Sanford.

Much distrust still surrounds the vaccine, which Hagen partly contributes to its production.

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“Because of a lack of knowledge regarding vaccine production, it caused a lot of skepticism and conspiracy theories because people didn’t trust that the vaccine was developed the way that it should have been,” Hagen said. “It was very articulately designed over a long period of time and put into quick action when we needed it.”

Hagen also mentioned that the vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from getting the virus or even getting sick, but that it offers significant protection against the severity of illness, hospitalization and death.

The future of COVID-19

As of the March 31 Town Hall event, Sanford Bemidji recognized its second consecutive Red Letter Day where there were no patients with active COVID-19 in the hospital since July 2020.

Regarding the current lull of cases in the county following a steep decline in the Omicron variant, Wilcox equated the pandemic to the spring season.

“You might see some grass, then you might see snow,” Wilcox added. “This is the way it’ll be for the next few months as we look at what's going to happen next with COVID. Imagine what the weather is like throughout March and April in Bemidji.”

Wilcox cited that 37% of Beltrami County residents have been fully vaccinated and boosted.

The next booster is likely coming in the near future as area health care facilities prepare for more variants.

“I don’t think this is over,” Hagen said. “We do believe it will live among us, but I’m hopeful that it stays minimal in our communities. Hopefully, it will peter out, but when the next variant comes along, we’ll want to stay ahead of it.”

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With the possibility of becoming an endemic where COVID-19 is still around but not causing significant stress on health care facilities or daily life, Wilcox looks to the future of boosters.

“Will vaccines be a routine? Probably, just like with influenza,” Wilcox added. “We don’t know if there will be seasonality with COVID where we can recommend people get vaccinated in a particular season and that’s open-ended at this point. Only time will tell.”

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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