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The COVID-19 vaccine is arriving in Mitchell. Here's the plan for how it will unfold.

800 doses to be administered next week

Dr. Anthony Hericks, a pulmonologist and director of Critical Care at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls receives a COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 14, among the first front-line workers in the state to be inoculated. (Avera Health photo)

The COVID-19 vaccine is coming to the Mitchell area. And in the words of those helping get it where it needs to be, it’s the beginning of the end of this awful pandemic.

“This is the way to end this,” said Avera Queen of Peace Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Hilary Rockwell, who specializes in emergency medicine and has been among the front-line doctors working on COVID-19 for the last nine months in Mitchell.

The rollout in the Mitchell area for Avera begins in earnest next week, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for the Moderna vaccine on Thursday. Eric Larson, the director of pharmacy at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, is the facility’s vaccine coordinator. Avera officials are expecting to receive up to 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week.

He said Queen of Peace’s Phase 1A group, as it is known in the Avera vaccine rollout playbook, will get the first doses near Mitchell. That group includes all front-line employees in COVID units and all nursing home residents and workers and residents in other long-term care facilities. That phase is meant to address key individuals in the Mitchell area, whether they’re in Avera’s system or not.

Phase 1B will include all hospital workers not directly in COVID care units, emergency responders and other hospital employees.


Larson said the first wave of vaccines should cover all of the Phase 1A individuals and “make a dent” in the Phase 1B group. The first round of vaccines will be made available at no cost.

When the next wave of vaccines becomes available -- which Larson and Avera staff don’t know when that will happen -- another group will be directed for administration. That will be people age 65 and older, individuals who have chronic issues or those who are immunocompromised. Those may have administrative fees for the recipient, but Larson said health insurance is expected to cover those.

Larson described himself as a sort of quarterback for the plan, trying to account for numerous different aspects of distribution. That includes storage, how the vaccine should be handled and prepared and keeping track of documentation, among other tasks. The goal starts with being ethical, fair and equitable regarding distribution, he said.

In a teleconference with the media Thursday, the Larson and Rockwell answered some of the commonly asked questions about the rollout of the vaccine and how it will take place locally.

Eric Larson
Eric Larson

Which vaccine will be available in the Mitchell area?

That would be the Moderna vaccine. That decision was made by Avera and officials because they believed it was more practical for the rural areas. With the Moderna vaccine, it does not need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine. Generally, a standard freezer is around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly equivalent to the minus-20 Celsius storage range for the Moderna vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus-80 Celsius, or minus-112 Fahrenheit, necessitating special storage.

Larson also said that once the vaccine moves from the freezer to refrigeration to be used, there is a longer period in which it can be used, up to 30 days, while the Pfizer use window is about five days.


“There’s a lot more flexibility,” Larson said, of the Moderna vaccine.

Avera is expecting to receive 2,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is expected to stay exclusively at Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls. About 6,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to be distributed throughout the Avera South Dakota footprint.

Why are two doses needed? And what is the protocol for making that happen?

The immunity differs with one dose or two. With just one shot, the immunity of the vaccines is about 50%, Avera officials said. When the two doses are administered, the immunity rate is about 95%.

“We can’t develop efficient immunity with just the first dose,” Larson said.

Immediately after the first immunizations are administered, Avera officials will follow up to make sure a second immunization date is scheduled, which is “extremely important,” he said.

The Moderna vaccine, which is the one expected to be in the Mitchell area first, calls for two injections, 28 days apart. (Pfizer’s gap between injections is 21 days.) Avera will try to closely stay on that 28-day timeline.

“It is really important to follow through, because likelihood for immunity really goes up with that second shot,” Rockwell said.

Are the vaccines safe?

The medical professionals say unequivocally yes. Rockwell said people should be reassured by the science that went into developing these vaccines over numerous years, not just the last few months, and noted that the FDA’s approval process was done in a public and transparent manner.


“The science is truly there,” she said, noting that clinical trials have been done on this type of vaccine since 2013.

Also, you can’t contract COVID-19 from the vaccine, Rockwell said. The vaccine is not capable of reproducing and the mRNA can’t penetrate the cell nucleus, which means it has no impact on genetics and claims about the vaccine affecting fertility are unfounded.

“It might be the most effective vaccine we’ve ever seen,” Rockwell said of the scientific findings so far.

In this 2015 file photo, Hilary Rockwell, an emergency medicine doctor at Avera Queen of Peace, is pictured. (Matt Gade / Republic)
In this 2015 file photo, Hilary Rockwell, an emergency medicine doctor at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, is pictured. (Matt Gade / Republic)

If I get the vaccine, what reaction will I have?

Some of the reactions include fever, body aches and soreness at the point of the injection. Rockwell said those reactions should subside within 48 hours of the vaccine.

“Those reactions are a sign of the vaccine in the system and the immune system’s response to it,” she said.

Of course, those are some of the same symptoms of COVID-19 itself, Larson pointed out, so he advised those who get the vaccine to pay close attention to how their body reacts and make sure those reactions are not from the COVID-19 virus, rather than the vaccine.


Trying to be cognizant of that aspect with their employees getting the vaccine, he said Avera will have shorter clinics over multiple days to administer the vaccine. Four clinics are planned for the first phase of doses, spread out over 5 to 6 hours, with the expectation to vaccinate 200 individuals each day.

With the vaccine, how long does the immunity last?

Medical leaders don’t know. More study is expected to take place in coming months to learn how long immunity from the vaccine will last.

There are a few subsets of the population who are not recommended to get the vaccine at this point. That includes children under the age of 16. Rockwell said that more extensive testing is set to take place with children under age 16 in 2021. She said part of that decision is because children have responded well to COVID-19 so far, with limited impacts.

There has been limited testing with pregnant women, so Rockwell advised that mothers who are expecting should consult with their doctor regarding getting the vaccine. She said the issues related to contracting the virus could supersede any response the vaccine might cause.

Even for those individuals who have already had COVID-19, Rockwell said they should still get the vaccine when it is their turn, simply because the immunity related to the vaccine is likely more effective than the unknown immunity from the virus itself.

For health care workers, what does the vaccine mean to them?

“It’s definitely a feeling of relief,” Rockwell said. “You’re letting go of some of that anxiety I’ve had over the last couple of months, seeing our front-line health care workers work overtime and some of them get sick. Everything they’ve been doing, I’m very thankful that we’re going to have this available.”

Rockwell said that to end masking and mitigation measures and return to a normal social life, the nation needs a majority of people to get the vaccine, which is “a light at the end of a dark, long year.”

“I’m excited to get to our high-risk populations,” she said. “Imagine what a relief it will be to get to some of our nursing homes and assisted living residents vaccinated to hopefully protect them, our most vulnerable population from this illness that has been so devastating to these populations.”


Larson described the recent months of planning as being “a hurricane,” and noting the historical nature of the vaccine’s arrival.

“I think all of us over the last few months have been praying or wishing for a path out of this, and now we’ve been given it. … And that involves our participation as individuals,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s what’s going to happen.”

Sister Mary Thomas, Avera Health's senior vice president of mission, blesses a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine before it is administered Dec. 14 at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. (Avera Health photo)

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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