Fargo area health care providers 'sitting on the edge of our seat' as the wait for vaccines continues

Administrators at Sanford Health and Essentia Health say each health system could administer 1,000 or more vaccinations daily — but the number is considerably lower because of scarce supplies.

An Essentia Health nurse fills a syringe full of the COVID-19 vaccine inside Fargo's vaccination center, located in the old Gordman's store, 5100 14th Ave. S, on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Submitted photo

FARGO — The slow pace in delivering vaccines to protect against coronavirus infection is being hampered by stormy winter weather that has plagued much of the nation’s midsection this week.

So far, 12.9% of residents in Cass County and 11.8% in Clay County have received at least one dose of vaccine, better than the 10% national average. In Cass County, 36,020 people have received at least one dose, and in Clay County 7,513 have received at least one dose, according to state figures.

But administrators at both Sanford Health and Essentia Health said on Wednesday, Feb. 17, that they could give many more vaccine shots than current supplies allow as people wait anxiously for their turn in line.

“We have the capacity to do 1,000 or well over 1,000 a day,” said Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford vice president and chief medical officer in Fargo. “We are prepared to do much more.”

Thus far, Sanford has administered about 8,200 shots to non-employees, he said.


Vaccinations are currently targeted for those who are 75 and older or those who are 65 and older and have at least two health conditions that place them at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 — a patient population of about 300,000 for Sanford.

“So, you can see it’s a large number,” Griffin said.


Dr. Richard Vetter, Essentia’s chief medical officer in Fargo, said the health system is able to vaccinate about 1,300 patients per week and has vaccinated up to 600 per day, but they could vaccinate 1,000 or more daily if supplies allowed.
“We have the capacity to ramp up if we could get the doses,” he said. “We think we’re doing a great job. We know we could do a lot more.”

Fargo Cass Public Health has administered more than 10,000 doses so far and this week expects to vaccinate about 4,000 people, a combination of both first and second doses, said Suzanne Schaefer, director of nursing.

“This is our heavy week,” she said. Local health providers wait eagerly to learn from state health officials what their next vaccine allocation and delivery date will be.

“We’re all just kind of sitting on the edge of our seat,” Schaefer said.

North Dakota state health officials have warned of possible vaccine delivery delays because of the disruptive winter weather — manufacturers don’t want to risk wasting vaccine doses if delays don’t allow proper cold storage, Griffin said.


But Fargo Cass Public Health was able to accept a shipment Monday, before any delays, so they have vaccine available this week, Schaefer said.

In North Dakota, vaccines are distributed in a rotation that allocates vaccines in three-week cycles, with the first week’s supply going to public health units, the second week to retail pharmacies and the third week to health systems.

Some people are signing up for vaccination appointments with multiple providers, a practice that is encouraged by state health officials in North Dakota, Schaefer said.

“It’s actually being promoted to get people on as many lists as possible,” but people are asked to remove themselves from lists once they’ve been vaccinated, she said.

Clay County Public Health has been notified to expect vaccine shipment delays because of the weather, but vaccinations will continue, said Jamie Hennen, director of nursing.

“We have the vaccines we need,” she said. “We’re doing OK so far. We’ll see what the rest of the week holds.”

Besides older patients, Minnesota is targeting child care workers and educators, a population of about 2,000 in Clay County, Hennen said. After Wednesday, all but about 800 of that group should have been vaccinated, she said.

The supply of vaccines should significantly improve once a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson is authorized, which could come in early March, Vetter said. That vaccine requires only a single dose and is easier to store and distribute.


Some have balked at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which tests indicate has a lower effectiveness rate, but the vaccine still is very effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, he said.

“That’s really what we’re trying to prevent,” Vetter said. Some people have been reluctant to get vaccinated, and "myths" are circulating on social media. People should talk to their providers for guidance. The risks of the virus are far greater than any risk of vaccination, he said.

At Sanford Broadway Medical Center, where a special care unit cares for COVID-19 patients, the census has fallen to 10 to 18 patients in recent days — far below the peak of 116 last year, Griffin said.

Even if another surge in cases happens, “We can easily manage that within our system,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t think this is the time to let our guard down,” a message underscored by the announcement on Wednesday that North Dakota has its first confirmed cases of a more infectious variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

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