Even with everyone in attendance sporting a face mask, it was easy to tell that most people were wearing as smile Friday as they entered the building to get their shot at the latest COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Mitchell.
The clinic, operated by Avera Health at its Patient Financial Services building on 15th Avenue, was expected to administer around 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine Friday, and the line of people was a steady stream of the latest group to qualify for the life-saving doses.
Among those noticing the upbeat mood of the worker and patients was U.S. Rep. and Mitchell resident Dusty Johnson, who was on hand to volunteer at the clinic.
“I love coming to see these because of how excited people are to get vaccinated,” Johnson said. “You have people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s who have not had enough hugs in the past year. They have not had enough exposure to the grandkids in the last year. They haven’t been able to get back to work enough. This is an opportunity for them to get back to normal, and you can tell they’re giddy about it.”
Johnson took up station near the entrance of the clinic, where he greeted those who walked in and helped guide them to the proper reception desk, where they filled out information, were screened for symptoms and waited for the moment a quick jab in the arm gave them their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Avera began administering doses of COVID-19 vaccine back on Dec. 26, and have since distributed 4,700 doses at the location. Officials with Avera Health indicate that nearly 20% of Davison County residents have received a dose of the shot since vaccination efforts began. As of Friday, the South Dakota Department of Health indicated that 30% of the state population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, with 244,697 doses having been administered to 158,135 individuals.
“For the Mitchell hub, we have administered 4,700 doses across 27 clinics,” said Rochelle Reider, vice president of patient services at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell.
The group on hand to be vaccinated Friday morning was made up of part of group 1D for vaccine priority. That group includes persons 65 years and older, high-risk patients such as those on dialysis or those who have active cancer, high-risk residents in congregate settings and persons with underlying medical conditions under the age of 65.
"I’m going to get the vaccine. I don’t have any hesitancy, but I understand it could have been awkward for a healthy 44-year-old who happens to be a politician to cut to the front of the line."
- Dusty Johnson
Reider agreed that there was a buzz in the air as those ready for their shot chatted with others in line and the Avera workers and volunteers on site.
“It’s been really rewarding. The energy around these clinics, especially with the most vulnerable population, this older group, they’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Reider said. “I think it’s not just (seen as a) light at the end of the tunnel, but also a sense of safety. That they won’t get severely ill or hospitalized, or be a victim of COVID-19.”
There is also a social factor that comes into play that, when combined with the knowledge that they are taking an important step to protect themselves and others, helps spread a feeling of pleasure and relief.
“Also, they’ve been socially isolated for so long trying to protect themselves, and they’re seeing people they know. Friends and neighbors. They can visit a little bit and celebrate together. We’ve really enjoyed the energy around the vaccine clinics,” Reider said.
Johnson said there was good reason to celebrate. Cases of the deadly disease have waned in South Dakota in the last few months, and the vaccine rollout in South Dakota has been praised for its efficiency, speed and coordinated cooperation between health care systems and the state.
“South Dakota is the envy of a number of other states in how well we’ve done. I do think that a number of rural states are doing well, and that’s because we know one another. We have health care systems that are used to working with state government and working with each other,” Johnson said. “This is not a competition. This is not a situation where Monument or Sanford or Avera want to best each other. They want to get people safe and healthy.”
The fact that there are vaccines at all for COVID-19 is reason alone to celebrate. Drug makers have been historically slow to develop vaccines in the past, but work on this vaccine has been much faster, Johnson said.
“When you look at what has been done on this vaccine, it’s remarkable. The typical timeline from an outbreak to a disease having a vaccine developed and available is seven to eight year,” Johnson said. “The fact that we have three vaccines available for use in just about a year is remarkable.”
Vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are currently being distributed in South Dakota. And recently, a single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson was approved for use by the FDA, giving health care providers another weapon in the fight against COVID-19.
“And because the vaccines have all been developed separately and tested in clinical trials separately, I think it should raise our confidence that they’re all showing good data,” Johnson said. “They have different strengths and weaknesses, and it gives us an opportunity to select the right tool for the right environment. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-dose, and that has some advantages. Having a variety of options is helpful.”
Johnson said he has not yet received a vaccine shot, despite it being available to him through his work as a United States Congressman. He took a poll of his constituents a few months back asking whether they felt he should receive the vaccine ahead of schedule. They indicated he should wait until his priority group came up, and he plans to do that, even while cheerleading the vaccination efforts.
“I’m going to get the vaccine. I don’t have any hesitancy, but I understand it could have been awkward for a healthy 44-year-old who happens to be a politician to cut to the front of the line,” Johnson said. “So, I’m trying to increase confidence in the vaccine, but when South Dakotans told me they wanted me to wait my turn, I decided I best wait my turn.”
Work at Avera vaccination clinics, as well as clinics put on by other healthcare groups, are expected to continue. For the local Avera clinics, shots are planned to be distributed on Fridays at the minimum, with more clinic days added to the week as the opportunity opens up for more residents and the allocation of vaccines remains strong.
The next group up for vaccination are teachers and educators and funeral service workers. That will complete phase 1D. That will be followed by 1E, which includes fire service personnel and public-facing workers in essential and critical infrastructure. After that, Phase 2 will begin, and that includes all others 16 year of age and older.
While he criticized the proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 national relief package as too large and not well-targeted to the needs of the country, the focus it gives to funding vaccines and testing will be crucial to winning the fight against the disease. And the fact three variants of the vaccine will soon be in the fight is welcome news in what has been a very long year.
That’s something everyone can be happy and proud about, he said.
“It’s worth celebrating as Americans that President Biden has said he thinks there will be enough doses for everyone to get theirs by May. That’s remarkable, and it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a tremendous amount of planning by health care professionals, researchers and a coordinated response with the government,” Johnson said. “This is really something Americans should take pride in.”