DULUTH – St. Louis County has canceled numerous vaccine appointments made by folks who don't live or work in the county or who don't meet criteria for the current phase of inoculation here.

About 40 people were turned away at the Duluth Depot on Tuesday while others have received e-mails saying their vaccine appointments were canceled, said Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County's director of public health.

"It's disappointing for everybody," she said in an interview. "Some people traveled quite a distance for a vaccine."

The county vaccine clinics are different from the state vaccination site in Duluth announced this week or those offered at area hospitals such as St. Luke's or Essentia Health.

Links to county testing appointments have been shared among Twin Cities residents and others outside the county, though Westbrook said there is "no evidence that anyone was knowingly trying to register inappropriately."

Jill Steeves, a 66-year-old Hennepin County resident, received the link from a friend and signed up for a Wednesday vaccination slot at the Duluth Depot — only to receive an e-mail Tuesday night saying it had been canceled.

"I'm very disappointed today not to get my vaccine," she said Wednesday. "I went back to that site today for Friday appointments. It let me fill out the same registration form and offered vaccination time options, all of which were filled. Why is the site still up? It makes me think that I should have gone to Duluth anyway to get a vaccination. Very frustrating to say the least."

The appointment scheduling system is run by PrepMod and offered to counties through a state contract. Though it asks for occupation, age and address it does not prevent someone from outside the area from signing up for an appointment in Duluth or on the Iron Range.

"The platform we're using would work well for a dental or chiropractic appointment, not something high-demand like a COVID vaccine. So it does have some limitations," Westbrook said. "We do ask people to not share the link, because we still need to target our vaccine."

St. Louis County is currently opening its vaccine clinics only to high-priority groups and turns away those who don't have an appointment or don't meet qualifications, which include living or working in St. Louis County.

The state-run testing site in Duluth is available via lottery for all Minnesota residents 65 and older, plus teachers and child-care providers. Registration is currently closed. Residents should continue checking the Minnesota Department of Health's website for new registration opportunities.

Those who want the vaccine should talk to their health care providers for guidance. Essentia Health and St. Luke's are both offering online sign-ups for patients who want to get in line to receive the vaccine when it is their turn.

Westbrook said those eligible for St. Louis County vaccine clinics will be contacted directly or be given a link — not to be shared — by an employer or health care provider.

Testing still encouraged

St. Louis County set up a new mobile testing trailer, paid for with federal coronavirus relief money, in the parking lot of Asbury Church in West Duluth on Wednesday in an effort to reach people who may not be able to get to the DECC or other free testing sites in the area. Another testing trailer has been dispatched to the northern part of the county.

"The goal is to come to the community," said county public health educator Susan Vitulli. "We're hoping this creates more opportunity for people on their way to work, running errands, and it's on the bus line."

On Wednesday the county reported just five new COVID-19 cases, the smallest daily total since August.

The relatively low number of new cases in the county so far this year has left Westbrook "cautiously optimistic" after a brutal November and December that saw thousands of new cases and dozens of virus-related deaths in the region.

The number of tests administered in the county has dropped from high levels during the last surge, though more people are being tested on a weekly basis than there were last summer and early fall.

The positivity rate in the county has fallen to 3.3%, which bodes well for controlling the spread of the virus.

Westbrook said she hopes residents don't become complacent as the pandemic enters a critical stretch and more contagious variants emerge.

"I don't know if all the vaccine talk is taking away from testing," she said. "Testing is still a really good strategy."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496