FedEx delivered a box containing 3,400 doses of vaccine for the Fargo region before 7 a.m. Monday, Dec. 14, more than three hours earlier than the shipment was anticipated. More deliveries of vaccine are expected weekly.
Dr. Avish Nagpal, Sanford’s chief infectious disease specialist in Fargo, was the first to receive an initial dose of the vaccine.
“It’s an amazing medical success story,” he said, referring to the availability of a vaccine nine months into the pandemic. “I hope people realize how historic this is.”
A line formed in a hallway in the lower level of the Sanford Medical Center, including doctors and nurses who are the first to be vaccinated.
“They have seen so much death, so much suffering,” Nagpal said. “I feel a lot of relief, a lot of gratitude. It’s been a painful journey, it’s been a long journey.”
Melanie Allen, a registered nurse at the COVID-19 unit at Sanford Broadway Medical Center, was also among the first to receive the vaccine, the first of two doses. A second dose must be administered within 21 days.
“I’m very excited,” she said. One of the many unknowns of COVID-19 is the full extent of long-term effects. “We don’t know yet what those will be and how long they would last. I don’t want my children, husband, anyone to experience long-term damage.”
“I’m not afraid of new things,” Allen added. “There are a lot of people who are hesitant,” but even those who have had COVID-19 could be susceptible to reinfection from another strain of the virus, underscoring the need for vaccination, she said.
“They may have gotten lucky in the first round, but round two kicks them in the butt,” Allen said.
“This is a pivotal moment in the history of medicine that will change the course of the pandemic,” said Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president medical officer for Sanford Health Fargo. He added that the health system has been preparing for months to execute the “very complex effort” of vaccinating health care workers and members of the public.
The milestone came 278 days after North Dakota reported its first COVID-19 case, on March 11, and on the day the state reported its 1,157th death during the pandemic.
Health care workers at Sanford in Bismarck also received their first doses of the vaccine Monday. Spokesman Jon Berg said the hospital received about 1,100 doses on Monday with more shipments planned in the weeks ahead.
A spokeswoman for CHI St. Alexius medical center said the Bismarck hospital expects to get its first vaccinations Tuesday. Essentia Health in Fargo is waiting to receive its first vaccine shipment, a spokeswoman said.
Dr. Mubashir Badar was among the first four to receive the vaccine in North Dakota’s capital city. The 36-year-old said he was the first doctor working in his hospital’s COVID-19 unit last spring, and Monday’s occasion marked a major victory in the exhausting war against the virus. Bashar’s eyes hinted a wide grin beneath a surgical mask as a nurse plunged the vial into his left arm.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for the last eight months,” Badar said. “This disease has literally affected everything. We have been trying our best to take care of people with the limited treatments we had, but this (vaccine) is finally a tool in our arsenal that we can use to fight this pandemic.”
Dr. Mubashir Badar became one of the first four Bismarck health care workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 on Monday, Dec. 14. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Sanford employees are strongly encouraged to get the vaccine to help control the spread of the virus. Because the vaccine is authorized under emergency use guidelines, it is not required for staff.
Badar strongly encouraged his colleagues and the public to take the vaccine, saying he has found it to be truly safe and effective after reading extensively about the rigorous medical trials each company underwent.
Berg noted that several Sanford committees developed a criteria to decide which workers would get priority for vaccination, with doctors and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients at the top of the list. He said the hospitals plan to give all front-line workers their first dose within the next two weeks.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius, which can keep the medication stable for up to 14 days.
“It is exciting and unusual at the same time,” said Dave Leedahl, a Sanford director of pharmacy. “We’ve never had anything of this magnitude that would affect thousands of people.”
The health system has invested in special cold storage facilities and has capacity to store almost 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Vaccine preparations involve pharmacy, supply chain, clinical operators, research and a number of other areas.
North Dakota has purchased four ultracold freezers and nine transport coolers to allow for the transportation of the Pfizer vaccine to rural communities. Locally, one of the ultracold storage freezers is at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo and another is at Sanford Moorhead Clinic.
Sanford employees wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Sanford Medical Center in southwest Fargo on Monday, Dec. 14. David Samson / The Forum
Sanford has a network with 180 couriers that will facilitate distribution of the vaccine to smaller medical centers across North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa as more supply becomes available. Sanford’s couriers regularly drive 11,500 miles daily to deliver lab work, medications and other needs.
Occasionally, Sanford receives overnight shipments of antidotes for a single patient, but never before has received special deliveries of vaccine for thousands.
Once the vaccine shipment arrived, it was placed on a cart on rollers in front of one of the special freezers in the pharmacy department at Sanford Medical Center. The vaccine was packed in dry ice to keep it cold.
“We all just kind of stood around it and kind of stood in awe,” Leedahl said.
Tens of thousands of patients were tested before the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for widespread use last week, he said. Only about 2% reported experiencing severe headaches or other moderate to severe effects, he said.
Only two people had serious reactions, both in the United Kingdom and both with a history of severe reactions to vaccines, Leedahl said.
“I would rather have some mild side effects rather than have the disease itself, which, depending upon the person, can be very serious,” he said. “I’m excited to get it whenever it’s available to me.”
Dr. Avish Nagpal displays the area’s first used COVID-19 vaccine vial after receiving the shot at Sanford Medical Center in southwest Fargo on Monday, Dec. 14. David Samson / The Forum
Berg noted that Sanford Bismarck will stagger the doses for employees to limit the short-term side effects of the vaccination on groups of nurses and doctors.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have combed through North Dakota’s 97-page vaccine distribution plan, which outlines the groups that stand at the front of the line for immunization.
The very first priority group includes doctors and nurses at the state’s six largest hospitals in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot. Then, health care workers at more than 30 smaller hospitals, first responders, COVID-19 testers and vaccinators and some medical clinic staff will be eligible for their first doses.
Residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, along with surgeons, hospice staff and laboratory technicians, round out the first tier of the vaccination plan. Hospital employees who work away from the front line, dentists, social workers, chiropractors and public health workers will also be eligible for vaccinations before the general public.
North Dakota’s vaccine ethics committee formed the priority groups based on their high risk of exposure to COVID-19, the likelihood they would suffer a serious illness if infected and their “critical role” in caring for patients and upholding the health care system, according to the plan.
North Dakota immunization manager Molly Howell estimated last week that the state will receive 40,000 doses of the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year.
In the initial wave of vaccine shipments, Howell said the state hopes to get first doses to all nursing home residents and about 60% of health care workers this month.
Immunizations likely won’t be available to the broader public until next spring or later, though children and pregnant women will have to wait a little longer because the original medical trials did not include those demographics, Howell said. The vaccine will be free to anyone who wants it, she added.