As an essential worker at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Glen Brown is on the list to get a health-protecting, anxiety-reducing shot of COVID-19 vaccine. But the 48-year-old diabetic hasn't a clue about when he might get it.
"We're front-line, but I haven't had a chance to get one yet," said Brown, who drives carts or pushes wheelchairs carrying passengers through the terminal. "I'll feel a lot better after getting the vaccine. Right now, I spray myself with Lysol after [passengers] touch me."
After spending the last year having to choose between risking their health or losing their livelihoods while navigating a pandemic, Minnesota's front-line workers are now eligible to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. But as with the state's senior population, getting a place in line is no guarantee that vaccination is imminent. Thousands of workers continue risking infection as they wait.
Brown, who has a second airport job shining shoes, said the fear of infection is always on his mind.
"You come in close contact with the traveling public … who comes from who knows where?" Brown said. "I'm a foot away from people in wheelchairs, people who are often unwell, with no gowns and no face shields. But these are hot spots."
An estimated 3.5 million people are eligible for vaccine in Minnesota, which has prioritized seniors, health care workers, educators, long-term care residents and non-elderly adults with qualifying health conditions or high-risk occupations. Based on state population estimates, more than 40% of people 16 and older who are eligible to receive vaccine in Minnesota have received at least a first dose. Nearly 80% of senior citizens have received vaccine as well.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health website, essential workers are on pace to start receiving vaccinations in March and April.
After months of anxiety over what would happen if he caught the virus, meatpacker Eloy Wood and many of his 600 co-workers at Long Prairie Packing Co. in Long Prairie, Minn., got their first shots Saturday. While he knows the initial shot is no guarantee against illness, Wood said he was excited to finally enjoy an enhanced level of protection after a year of uncertainty.
His wife and daughter contracted the virus, although they didn't become seriously ill, forcing Wood and his son to quarantine elsewhere in the house.
"I don't know what was going to happen if I got it," said Wood, who is the sole wage earner in his family. "It's a little bit of peace of mind."
Monday night, Kao Yong Yang prepared and served meals for 165 people at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. She averages about 140 a day as part of the Loaves & Fishes program. Yang is 22 and healthy, she said. But she has 11 people, including her grandmother, living under one roof in Brooklyn Center, and she worries about catching the virus and bringing it home.
"It's always in the back of my mind," she said "I'm definitely nervous about it. Every day, there are different volunteers who come in and every day you expose yourself to more of it."
As someone who works in food production, Yang is now eligible to receive the vaccine, said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves & Fishes. In fact, Yang has received notice of three available appointments. But none of the slots could accommodate her work schedule, she said. And she found out about them too late to make adjustments.
So, she's back on the waiting list.
It's not unusual that workers — even essential ones — have limited scheduling options, Maes said.
"I had a staffer come in yesterday. They had an appointment in Brooklyn Center, the only slot available. But they live in the Apple Valley-Lakeville area and they work in downtown Minneapolis," she said. "All that, and the only time and place is in Brooklyn Center?"
Brahim Kone, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 26, which represents janitors, security guards and airport workers, said many of his members continue to wait for vaccine appointments despite their essential worker status. As was the case earlier in the pandemic, working from home isn't an option for most front-line workers, and they face greater risks.
More than 800 of Local 26's 8,000 members either have contracted COVID-19 or were quarantined because they were close to someone who had it, Kone said. Four members died.
While airport workers can expect to get vaccinated soon and companies like General Mills are doing large workplace vaccinations, "many are still waiting" for shots, he said.
Kone acknowledged that for some, the wait is by choice. Not every worker is confident in the safety of the vaccines now being offered, he said.
"We are pushing it [to be available] at the same time we are saying, 'Don't make it mandatory,' " he said, acknowledging some are waiting to see how co-workers respond to it.
Elia Starkweather works as a janitor in a downtown Minneapolis office tower. The Golden Valley resident contracted COVID-19 in January, and although she said it wasn't that bad — mainly aches and pains and a loss of taste and smell — she worries about reinfection.
"Compared to others, I had it easy," she said. "It was more about getting scared than being sick."
Months later, she still hasn't fully regained her senses. Or her confidence.
"I am really scared of getting it again," she said. "But we really don't have another choice. We have to work."
Absent a vaccination, Starkweather's days are limited to going to work, pulling her shift, and going home.
"I have put my name on the list but nobody has called me yet," she said of getting a shot.
For Feben Ghilagaber, a server at the airport, fear of contracting COVID while waiting for her turn for the vaccine isn't enough to keep her from returning to work. She can't afford to stay home. Since the beginning of the pandemic in Minnesota in March 2020, she's been laid off several times — first in April, then again in December after going back to work in October. She's set to return to her job in the next week or so, vaccine or no vaccine.
"I'm still very nervous," said Ghilagaber, who lives in Minneapolis. "Every time I went to work before, I was very nervous. I saw several co-workers get very sick."
Her $400 per week in unemployment compensation won't last much longer.
"I want to work. I have to work," Ghilagaber said. "But I want to be safe. I hope to get [the vaccine] as soon as possible and go back to my job — and go back to my life."
Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428