FARGO — The rollout of vaccines to protect against the highly contagious coronavirus is hampered by limited supplies of vaccine, with North Dakota receiving fewer than 10,000 doses per week.

In North Dakota, 8% of the population has received one dose of the vaccine and 2.1% of the population has received the required two doses as of Tuesday, Jan. 26, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

The rates are slightly higher in Cass County, which holds about a quarter of the state’s population, with first doses given to 8.8% and second doses to 3.3%.

In Minnesota, about 5% of the population has received at least one vaccine dose, and about 1.2% has received two doses, according to state data.

Health providers still are prioritizing those who are 75 and older or are 65 and older with health conditions that put them at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, including diabetes, high-blood pressure and obesity.

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Sanford Health has devised an algorithm to identify patients who are at highest risk of hospitalization, and therefore move to the head of the line to receive vaccine, said Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president and chief medical officer of Sanford Fargo.

“We need to identify the highest of the high risk,” he said, adding that Sanford has identified 83,000 priority patients in the Fargo area. “Really, the issue is the availability of the vaccine.”

The algorithm uses such factors as a patient's age and comorbidities — chronic conditions that place the patient at higher risk. The priority list overlaps substantially with the current tier of patients targeted for vaccination, those 75 or older, he said.

“We’re not hoarding vaccine,” Griffin said. “We’d love to give it to everybody. The supply just isn’t there.”

Essentia Health is taking a different approach. It is pulling names at random within the group targeted by state health officials for vaccination, which its allocation team deems fair, said Sara Hanson, a nurse manager.

Those who have been vaccinated so far, many of them elderly, are grateful, she said.

“This is the biggest cup filler I’ve had in the last 10 years,” Hanson said. “These are folks that have been socially hibernating from the public in many cases. They are as grateful as I’ve seen anyone.”

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In allocating vaccines, the North Dakota Department of Health distributes vaccines first to the large health systems, including Sanford and Essentia, then to public health units, followed by retail pharmacies, said Monte Roemmich, a Sanford pharmacy manager.

“As soon as we know vaccine is coming in, we work on scheduling, setting up appointments,” he said.

Minnesota follows a different method, allocating vaccines through eight coalitions located throughout the state. The three distribution channels in North Dakota — a rotation between health systems, public health units and pharmacies — aren’t as evident in Minnesota, Hanson said.

Within the Essentia system, rural clinics lag a week behind Fargo in receiving vaccines, unless communities have a hospital, in which case they are on par with larger communities, Hanson said. Minnesota is about two weeks behind North Dakota, she said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is speeding up plans to make COVID-19 vaccines more readily available across the state to counter what officials call a “crippling” supply shortage. New actions the state announced included a 72-hour goal for vaccine providers to administer 90% of doses within three days of receiving them and all doses within a week.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will buy enough vaccines to boost allocations to the states by 16% over the next three weeks, with the aim of vaccinating everyone with two doses by the end of summer.

Sanford and Essentia’s Fargo medical centers coordinate closely with their satellite clinics to get vaccines to patients in rural communities.

Sanford has daily courier service to its outlying clinics, so vaccines are simply added to the items, including medications and lab specimens, that are routinely shuttled between sites, Roemmich said.

The outlying clinics all are within several hours of Fargo, where deep-freeze storage is available, so it’s not difficult to administer the shots while keeping them within required temperature ranges, he said.

In some cases, Sanford is sharing doses with public health units. An example is in North Dakota’s Traill County, which includes Hillsboro, where Sanford has given doses to Traill County Public Health for distribution, Griffin said.

Jac McTaggert is the administrator of Sanford Hillsboro Medical Center. David Samson / The Forum
Jac McTaggert is the administrator of Sanford Hillsboro Medical Center. David Samson / The Forum

The Sanford Hillsboro Medical Center in Hillsboro, N.D. David Samson / The Forum
The Sanford Hillsboro Medical Center in Hillsboro, N.D. David Samson / The Forum

Jac McTaggert, Sanford’s top administrator in Hillsboro, said he’s working closely with public health officials to coordinate vaccination efforts. “It’s going to be a scheduled process,” he said. “I think it’s going to be orderly. The timeliness of delivery will be handled by our courier service.”

Because of the courier service, Hillsboro, located 42 miles north of Fargo, is on par with nearby urban centers. “So we can make it feel like you’re in Fargo or Grand Forks,” he said.

In Fargo, Sanford, Essentia and Fargo Cass Public Health jointly operate a community vaccination center in the former Gordmans store at 5100 14th Ave. S., where each provider has 10 booths, enabling the center to vaccinate 30 patients at once.

North Dakota ranked third, behind Alaska and West Virginia, in per-capita vaccinations on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

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