Minnesota House’s new Preventative Health Policy Division takes aim at Covid vaccines

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

The Minnesota House of Representative’s new Preventative Health Policy Division got its start on Wednesday with a session mostly focused on the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, but the new group of legislators has plans to tackle much more than just pandemic-related preventative health, according to Rep. Mike Freiberg (D-District 45B), who chairs the division. 

Other topics the division will explore will include tobacco control, healthy eating, and possibly climate change. 

In addition, a resolution passed by the House last summer, declaring racism to be a public health crisis, will likely have relevance for the division, according to Freiberg. 

“We passed a resolution last year declaring racism to be a public health crisis, because it is,” Freiberg said in a phone interview. “And then it was out of that resolution that the Select Committee on Racial Justice was created.” That committee’s final report will come out within the week, Freiberg said. “I do anticipate that that committee’s findings will have relevance not only to the preventive health policy division, but many other divisions as well, because racism is not just a health problem— it certainly is that, but it’s also a problem in terms of education and job creation, and public safety.”

Meanwhile, for the Preventative Health Division’s  first hearing, they focused on Covid-19 because that’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds. 

“I wanted to kind of hear about that right off the bat,” Freiberg said. “I’m sure there will be some sort of legislation related to address the COVID pandemic to prevent further outbreaks of it. So I thought this would be a good place to start considering where we are right now in the world.”

According to Freiberg, the division was formed because the House caucus and Speaker Melissa Hortman (D- District 36B), recognized the importance of prevention. 

“When you’re talking about health care, a lot of health care costs and health care problems, can be fended off if you’re thinking about thinking about it more upstream, and trying to think of ways to prevent health problems and improve public health generally,” Freiberg said. “I think that was definitely a factor just that the caucus wants to focus on prevention this year.

In addition, The Human Services Finance Committee and the Health and Human Services Policy Committee account for over 40 percent of the state budget. “The bills just end up being huge, a thousand pages long. So splitting it up into a few different areas that include our priorities was something that functionally made sense. Since we are in the middle of a pandemic, it just seemed to be a logical thing to do.” 

The division hearing, conducted virtually, included two guest speakers, Jan Malcolm, Commissioner of MN Department of Health, and Kris Ehresmann, the Director of the Department of Health’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division. 

In the hearing, Ehresmann laid out where things are at with Minnesota’s vaccine distribution, given the change in policy announced this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, which directed states to vaccinate anyone 65 or older, as well as anyone of any age with comorbidities. 

For Minnesota, the new larger group of people in those categories is 2.1 million people, Ehresmann said, but the state only has 65,000 doses. “We only have what we are allotted by the federal government,” Ehresmann said. 

According to Malcolm, the HHS’s announcement that the federal government will release more vaccine doses pushes the responsibility to the states that there is enough for people to their second dose. 

“It’s trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” said Rep. Robert Bierman (D-District 57A.)   

Also discussed in the hearing, besides the timing of the vaccine rollout, was what to do about vaccine hesitancy among some communities. 

Rep. Esther Agbaje (D-District 59B), asked the department of health leaders how their team will  engage with diverse communities who may have had negative experiences with the medical community. 

“We will be relying on community clinics, community organizations, faith leaders and the like to do that engagement and education,” Malcolm responded. 

In addition, Josh Heintzeman (R- District 10A), pressed Malcolm and Ehresmann about whether businesses will be encouraged to require vaccination of their employees. 

Since the vaccine is designated as emergency use currently, it can’t be required, Ehresmann said. Once the vaccinations become licensed, Ehresmann said it’s still too soon to tell. ‘It is premature to really talk about that because there are a lot of things we don’t know,” she said. 

In an interview following the meeting, Freiberg said that as the vaccines become more wildly available, the division may focus on ways to counter vaccine hesitancy. “As the vaccines become more widely available, countering this vaccine hesitancy is going to be something that’s incredibly important to do,” he said. 

That falls under Freiberg’s priority of focusing on the pandemic in the division as a number one order of business. 

“Addressing the pandemic, and encouraging vaccination is probably my top priority,” he said. 

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