Vaccines: Switching Gears

Lynette Bruening of Avera Health administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic held at the Yankton Mall Friday afternoon. Officials said Avera has administered 15,000 two-shot vaccination cycles in Yankton County and another 5,000 in Union County.

The month of May brings major changes to the local COVID-19 vaccination effort, according to an Avera Sacred Heart Hospital (ASHH) official.

The scheduling, location and billing for receiving the shots will change. In addition, local vaccinations will now open to anyone from outside South Dakota.

Liz Healy, ASHH vaccination coordinator, announced the transitions Friday to Yankton media.

Avera’s changes don’t affect other sites offering inoculations around the community, Healy said. When including other clinics and pharmacies, Yankton offers all three vaccines: Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

ASHH has offered the Pfizer two-dose vaccine in a large clinic setting at the Yankton Mall. Friday marked the end of first-dose clinics at the mall, but the hospital will continue offering the second doses at the mall for the next three Thursdays.

“We’re transitioning our Avera COVID vaccine clinic from the Yankton Mall to our Avera Medical Group family practice clinic (in the Fox Run district),” Healy said. “As we have seen the (demand) for the vaccine decrease here in the last few weeks, it made sense to feather it into our clinic, so we’ll be doing that.”

Plans call for moving COVID-19 vaccinations to the Avera clinic around mid-May. At that point, interested persons can make appointments to receive vaccinations. The public can choose online from available times, benefiting all parties.

“That way, it makes sure that it’s efficient for everyone to get in and out quickly (for their shot),” Healy said. “When you sign up for your first vaccine, you’ll get the appointment for your second one.”

ASHH will offer an additional vaccination opportunity next week. The hospital is holding a walk-in clinic, with no appointment needed, for the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. The clinic will run from 5:30-7 p.m. May 6 at the Yankton Mall.

REACHING A MILESTONE

In terms of its own inoculation efforts, ASHH recently reached a milestone, Healy said.

“Last week marked 20,000 vaccines through Avera Sacred Heart Hospital,” she said. “That’s for both Yankton and Union counties, both the first and second doses. … That’s a heck of a lot of vaccines given.”

Healy admitted mixed feelings about the upcoming changes as the mass clinics have run smoothly and have provided a good community outreach. “It’s a bittersweet ending,” she said.

Another change comes in the billing process, in response to changes in South Dakota Department of Health funding for the COVID-19 inoculation process, she noted. The vaccine is free, but the administration process carries a cost.

Starting today (Saturday), Avera will bill insurance for the cost of administering the vaccine. Those without insurance won’t be charged. The change only covers vaccinations moving forward and isn’t retroactive.

In addition, local vaccinations are no longer limited to South Dakotans, Healy said. Persons who received their first dose of Pfizer elsewhere can now receive the second dose at the Avera clinic, she said.

The change in residency requirements will provide a major boost for a border city such as Yankton, Healy said. With Nebraska just across the Missouri River, the Yankton sites can now inoculate those who routinely come to Yankton for jobs, medical care, school, shopping, dining and recreation.

The change also comes at an important time of the year, as tourism and recreation season kicks into high gear. Residents from other states can receive their COVID-19 shots in South Dakota, if they desire.

Tourism provides a major boost to the Yankton economy, Healy said. As for an influx of visitors, she noted a major positive attribute. “At this point, 237 million doses (of the COVID-19 shots) have been given. We have almost 100 million people who are fully vaccinated,” she noted.

Last year, Yankton saw record tourism numbers because of visitors seeking outdoors recreation and social distancing.

REACHING OUT

At the present time, ASHH holds ample supply of vaccine and can provide shots for anyone who wants it, Healy said. Demand has fallen in recent weeks, which she attributes to the large number who have already become fully vaccinated and those who have hesitated or refused to get the shot.

Yankton County has seen a decrease in cases but needs to remain vigilant, Healy said.

“In Yankton County, there is still a substantial amount of community spread,” she said. “Many communities in South Dakota are not at substantial spread. Some are moderate, others are minimal.”

Most people who receive Moderna or Pfizer return for their second shot, Healy said. Those who don’t return typically have forgotten or can’t make the original appointment, and those groups reschedule. A small percentage make the decision not to get the second shot.

“The first shot primes your pump (by activating antibodies), and the second shot gives you the longevity. It gives you the immunity, so it’s very important to receive that second shot,” she said. “What we have seen is a really good percentage return to come and get their second vaccine.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has adjusted its guidelines for COVID safety measures, such as masks, and will likely continue to do so as circumstances change, Healy said. The changes will like cover both outdoor and indoor activities and gatherings.

Vaccinations, along with measures such as wearing masks, decrease the chance of getting infected or of spreading it, Healy said.  Wearing a mask not only protects the wearer but also others such as family, friends and co-workers.

The vaccination will also protect against variants, which are increasing in South Dakota, she said. The UK variant has emerged as the largest threat at this time, she added.

Those who previously contracted COVID-19 will have limited immunity and should still receive the vaccine, Healy said. Re-infection is possible, and an inoculation protects against hospitalization or death in those cases, she added.

MOVING FORWARD

A recent mailer sent to Yankton residents was filled with misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccinations, Healy said. “That mailer was so disheartening,” she said.

South Dakota Department of Health officials discussed such mailers during their weekly media conference. They noted some mailers implied local doctors supported the message, with the doctors saying they had nothing to do with the mailing or its content.

The CDC and an independent review company provide accurate and up-to-date information on the vaccine, Healy said. She encouraged those with questions to check out such reputable sources or to contact their health providers.

The scientific estimate for herd immunity has been 70% of the population, Healy said. Area health officials are working to boost the number of vaccination to reach that level, she said.

“We’re close to it, but I wish we were a little bit closer,” she added.

Despite recent successes, the Yankton region can’t let down its guard, Healy said. “We still have work to do. We’re seeing the variants and the chance of re-infection. We need to stop giving the virus a host to live in,” she said.

In the end, the efforts will help end the pandemic, Healy said. “I’m looking forward to the day when we can all go back to normal,” she said.

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For those seeking immunization with the Avera Medical Group in Yankton, call (605) 668-8000 to schedule an appointment.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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