‘Where the rubber meets the road’

Posted 12/23/20

By John McLoone Dakota and Washington County’s Public Health Departments are keeping abreast of COVID-19 vaccine updates and will be at the forefront of distribution efforts in coming weeks and …

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‘Where the rubber meets the road’


By John McLoone

Dakota and Washington County’s Public Health Departments are keeping abreast of COVID-19 vaccine updates and will be at the forefront of distribution efforts in coming weeks and months.

Just as importantly, Dakota and Washington County commissioners plan to continue to get grant funding in the bank accounts of businesses hardest hit by Minnesota government-ordered shutdowns.

Those were the primary messages in a discussion on Facebook organized by District 54 State Sen. Karla Bigham Thursday night. Bigham moderated the event featuring Dakota County Commission Chair Mike Slavik of Hastings and Washington County District 4 Commissioner Wayne Johnson of Cottage Grove.

Bigham credited county government with their help and leadership, and not only during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s a former Washington County commissioner, the predecessor in Johnson’s seat.

“You all know I have a soft spot in my heart for county government. It’s where it’s at. It’s where the work is done. It’s where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “Thank you for being partners, especially during this time.”

Johnson said things continue to move fast on the COVID-19 front. He said the county will continue to support and be involved in COVID-19 testing.

“We’ve evolved from more of the stick it up the nose to the saliva testing. You get the results faster,” he said. “We’ve helped staff and provided logistics for community testing. Our testing will continue in 2021. We’ll see what that looks like with the vaccinations coming.”

Slavik said Dakota County took the lead in testing and has four sites, as well as 15 others throughout the county where testing is available at health care facilities.

“Testing was key to get the virus under control. Counties are vital in that effort,” Bigham said. “Local Public Health is a key job of counties and both of these counties do local Public Health exceptionally well.”

Johnson said that a Washington County packaging firm is involved in creating special packaging for one vaccine.

“They’ve been involved in some of the testing packages,” he said, noting the challenges because of the cold temperatures for the vaccine. “Right here in Washington county we have people involved in this whole process that goes out through the whole country.

Johnson said that while the vaccines have now been introduced, information on the roll out to this part of the country is still forthcoming.

“They’re still trying to figure out at the state and federal level how it’s going to roll out. Washington County Public Health will be involved,” Johnson said. “They’re still trying to figure who’s going to be next. There are a lot of people and a lot of people have a valid reason to be next. Public health will definitely play a role in distribution. We expect our health department will be needed to get our residents in public safety and long-term care facilities vaccinated, just like in the testing when we did that.

He said chain pharmacies and health care providers will be vaccination spots when the vaccine is available for the public.

“They’re really going to be the ones to get it out there en masse. We expect to be part of the logistics,” he said. ‘We’re getting updated regularly.”

Slavik said Dakota County Public Health is on ethe front lines in getting training to vaccination providers.

“We actually have some of our nurses who have gotten through the extra trainer for the CVS and other companies to help them with the full implementation. We’ve designated a number of our staff who are working with the Department of health at the state to do that.”

A trailer was purchased to keep the climate-controlled vaccine safe, he said.

“Dakota County purchased a trailer. As many know the vaccine is going to be at very cold temperatures or very, very cold temperatures.

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The extreme cold temperatures need to be transported differently. We have our mobile vaccination unit, and we have a trailer and with that they’re able to have those very, very cold vaccinations.,” said Slavik.

Slavik said 200,000 doses of the vaccine will be administered in Dakota County before year-end.

“We’re going to start with our health care workers and long-term care and move on to essential workers. We don’t know what the state is going to deem essential. We assume it’s education, public safety, EMTs, law enforcement, some of the front-line retail. They’re still trying to figure out what that is, because we’re only going to have 200,000-plus vaccines by the end of the year. There’s far more in that phase one than we’ll have vaccines for by the end of the year. At the same point, we’re going to have 200,000-plus vaccines over 14 days. That’s pretty impressive in itself,” said Slavik.

As for the general public: “You’re probably not going to see something until later on in the winter,” said Slavik.

Bigham moved the conversation to other ways the counties are helping during the pandemic. One big thing is in the area of housing.

“There’s a lot of unfortunate things that have happened with COVID. The disparity has been quite striking. One thing that has been hit hard is housing. Residents in Dakota County, if they are needing assistance in housing, what have you done with that?” she asked Slavik.

People can’t be evicted during the pandemic, and Slavik said assistance is available to renters to help make their rent payments if they can’t on their own. However, many renters haven’t been doing that, and landlords have been put in a tough situation.

He said Dakota and Hennepin Counties partnered on a new program.

“We created a separate landlord program, where the landlord gets paid instead of the renter. That was wildly successful,” he said. “We gave over $2 million in rental assistance by the landlords applying in 10 days. The landlords know the situation (of the renters). They can give relief to the tenant and still pay their mortgage on the property,” Slavik said.

“That’s a great story Mike,” said Johnson. “We just had a meeting at the last board meeting, going over the rental assistance and going over the next year. We know this isn’t going to be done. We know there’s going to be more need.”

He said Washington County had 760 applications for rental assistance and gave out $2.7 million to support that.

“We realize there’s still going to be need. We’re stepping up at a county level, even if we don’t get help from the federal or state level,” said Johnson.

He said the county also gave out $1.1 million in mortgage assistance to homeowners.

“We want to help people stay in their homes,” he said. “We’ve always had that program. It’s just ramped up to a bigger scale.”

Johnson said the county is ready for another round of business funding as well, though it took three rounds with the first batch of CARES Act money to disburse the funds.

“Counties used to be the silent layer of government. We’re not so silent anymore,” he said.

Bigham said $216 million is earmarked for the state to go to counties for business relief.

“I know Dakota County did just an amazing thing, a real simple thing to help the businesses hit hardest and that’s the hospitality industry,” she said in handing off the topic to Slavik.

The county is sending $5,000 to affected businesses.

“We have some vars and restaurants on the verge of not being able to see the new year,” said Slavik. “We set aside some county dollars and set an amount of $5,000 per on-sale liquor license that we’re doing as a small business relief grant, roughly 300 business in Dakota County. We’re sending them all a check. There’s a very simple application, and we’re going to get the money out the door in a week.

“Financially speaking, we took some pretty aggressive approaches when the pandemic hit as far as hiring freeze4s. We’ve had some pretty significant cost savings as an organization. We’ve been able to use some of those dollars to help out,” he said. “All three of us have talked to business owners, probably daily, and we know particularly that this industry has been hit hard. When you rely on half your money from people sitting up next to the bar and they can’t walk in and do that, that makes a pretty significant hardship.

Johnson said Washington County is keying in on how to get money distributed faster in the next round of business grants.

“The challenge I’ve put out there is we can’t wait,” he said. “We have to figure out how to get the money out faster. Last time it took three rounds. We’re already working on this. Even though the money just got signed, we’re limited when we can approve it. We have board meetings. I said we have to get out there so at the first board meeting of the year, we have a plan in place to get that money out there.”