For Mary Kay Feltes of Owatonna, Minn., the small pox epidemic had a lasting, negative effect on her family for nearly a hundred years.

Feltes, a former local library director, pulled out a photographs of her family from her knapsack and laid them on a picnic table in the city’s Central Park.

“This is my dad’s story,” she began. “My dad was four years old when he saw his mother for the last time. She was taken to LaCrosse, she had smallpox, but she died in childbirth. So my dad was motherless at four years old. He had small pox all his life, and the physical scars and emotional scars remained,” Feltes explained.

Today, thanks to a vaccine, smallpox is no longer a threat. But this Owatonnan lives in Steele County – currently one of the state’s Covid hot spots.

“I’m concerned. I look at the numbers. I see we have 53% has one dose and 50% have both doses under the state average.”

Feltes started a Facebook page to arm her neighbors with information about the efficacy of vaccines. However, she admits that many of her neighbors don’t seem interested. When asked what she thought was behind the perceived apathy, she did not hesitate.

“The fierce sense of independence,” Feltes said. “I think that’s wonderful, but we have to realize we live in a community, and we need to protect our neighbors and friends,” she continued.

Yet Steele County remains a hot spot for Covid infections per capita. Local reporter Deb Flemming has been writing about local Covid cases. 

“We walk into any grocery store or public area, you don’t see a lot of masks, and our vaccination rates are below the state average,” she said.

As with everywhere else, it’s become political. “They’re looking through a political lens versus a public health lens,” Flemming said, echoing Feltes.

At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Andrew Badley said what’s different about this pandemic compared to previous ones is the 24-hour news cycle we live in.

“A lot of information out there, and a lot has gone through scientific process and some haven’t,” he said. Badley is an infectious disease physician and researcher. He is also chair of the Mayo Clinic’s Covid task force. Badley said the sheer volume of available content online and via mobile phones can be overwhelming – and sources with factual information are not always discernible.

“It’s quite apparent that people are confused by the amount of information,” he said.

To help people stay informed, Mayo Clinic researchers recently created a Covid map that shows infection rates by state and even by county. Overall, the state has a vaccination rate of 57% – slightly above the national percentage.

“There’s no control groups, so you can’t say what it would be like without it,” Badley said, when asked about his prognosis after the vaccine rollout. “But if you think about it, I began my career in the world of HIV [when] the time to identify the virus took a couple of years, the first treatment took five or more years,” Badley said.

To date, many therapies have since been developed much more rapidly for viruses like SARS-2 and now COVID-19. And while federal approval paperwork may have been rushed, the clinical trials weren’t.

“None of that was rushed. In fact, we have more clinical experience with these vaccines than more than any other therapy in the history of studying medicine,” he said.

And while Badley and other health officials cite the efficacy of the vaccines to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and deaths, Badley conceded that the trials never tested the vaccines to prevent infection altogether. Breakthrough infections that have been reported by fully-vaccinated adults are not rampant, but they do occur.

The three types of breakthrough infections are:

  1. Vaccinated person with asymptomatic disease
  2. Vaccinated person with symptomatic disease
  3. Vaccinated person with weakened immune system

A former mayor of Owatonna, Peter Connor believes he is one of those who developed a breakthrough asymptomatic infection of COVID-19. He has been active in trying to convince his fellow residents to get vaccinated as well. One recent organized effort in the park, however, had only five walk-ins.

“Sadly, it will take an increased number of instances where our hospital is overrun, sadly, we are pushing that to the very bottom levels of improving consciousness,” he predicted.

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“When I was adopted from South Korea to the U.S. in 1971, I thought I came with just my Korean name, Lee So Ra, a presumed birthdate and the clothes on my back. I thought there would never be any hope to trace back to my original family. Little did I know then  that I had also come with a key: my DNA.” One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Lee recently discovered through a DNA test that she had a sister living in Denmark – and this summer, they met for the first time.

As part of the “Leadership Through the Pandemic” series, writer Pamela McClanahan also interviewed Dr. Roli Dwivedi, who is an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, and Chief Clinical Officer at the Community-University Health Care Center at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Dwivedi discusses the challenges of meeting patient needs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, how her teams embraced a blend of in-person, online and hybrid medical visits, and how they mobilized testing and vaccination efforts in communities with low levels of trust in the medical industry.