‘Don’t Wait: Vaccinate’

When it comes to holding out for a new COVID vaccine — don’t wait, inoculate.

Elizabeth Healy, the Avera Sacred Heart Hospital (ASHH) vaccination coordinator, offered that advice during a teleconference with Yankton media Tuesday.

Currently, the Avera health system offers the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In Yankton County, ASHH offers the Pfizer model and has distributed thousands of doses.

The Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine, which received federal emergency approval this week, has generated a great deal of interest because it requires only the single shot, Healy said.

“We’ve received quite a few phone calls about it,” she added. “We realize (one dose) would be quite a bit more convenient for most people, but the best vaccine is the one that is immediately available, and that vaccine is the Pfizer vaccine.”

Avera officials don’t know what to expect in terms of the J&J allocation, Healy said. While more information will become available, ASHH recommends patients move forward with the current supply rather than wait, she added.

J&J differs from Pfizer and Moderna in that it isn’t an mRNA vaccine, Healy said. The J&J inoculation elicits an immune response against COVID-19, has been rigorously tested and cannot cause the illness, she added.

Healy said she was pleased with the Yankton County’s vaccination rate, which she considers far ahead of schedule.

“If you told me, starting Dec. 23, that we would have given more than 6,000 vaccinations by the end of February, I would have found it hard to believe,” she said. “The early predictions were that we wouldn’t get there until May or June, and we’re already there. We want to get to the most folks as fast as possible.”

So far, Avera has distributed about 50,000 first doses of vaccine in South Dakota, Healy said. The federal government has increased its vaccine shipments to the Rushmore State in recent weeks.

South Dakota has designated vaccine providers for each county. In the southeast region, Avera provides the inoculations for Charles Mix, Douglas, Bon Homme, Yankton, Hutchinson and Union counties. Sanford Health provides the shots for Clay, Turner and Lincoln counties.

In Nebraska, the state Department of Health is coordinating the vaccination efforts through its districts, such as the north-central and northeast regions.

In addition, inoculations are given through the Veterans Administration (VA), the Indian Health Service (IHS) and federally designated retail pharmacies.

The ASHH vaccine supply is based on Yankton County’s population. Residents in other South Dakota counties should receive their shots through designated local health facilities, while Nebraskans should receive immunizations through their state health department.

Currently, South Dakota has opened the vaccines to residents over age 65, residents ages 18-64 with underlying medical conditions and persons who fall into designated professions.

ASHH is working with medical clinics to determine who is eligible to receive COVID immunizations, Healy said. In addition, the public can leave their names on the Avera.org website or call the toll-free phone number on the site.

Yankton County vaccination clinics have been scheduled for the Yankton Mall, Healy said. ASHH has called people during the day to set up appointments but has also sought to reach them at other times.

ASHH has offered first doses on one day and second doses on a different day for more efficiency and less confusion, Healy said. ASHH has offered only one type of vaccine because it would otherwise need to keep records of which immunization the person has received the first time.

“For the Pfizer vaccine, it’s important to keep the appointment for the second vaccination 21 days after the first one,” she said.

ASHH doesn’t hold back any vaccines and attempts to give shots within a day after receiving a shipment, Healy said. People who receive both vaccinations can still transmit the virus and should continue wearing a mask, remain socially distanced and stay at home if sick.

Health providers have discussed whether one dose of Moderna or Pfizer would offer adequate protection, Healy said. At this time, Avera will schedule both shots. The first vaccine serves as a “primer” for the body, while the second dose solidifies the “memory” for lasting effectiveness.

For those hesitant about the vaccine, Healy encourages them to have a frank discussion with their trusted health providers or consult sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, the FDA website lists the ingredients of the COVID vaccines.

“No vaccine is mandatory, so it is a personal decision to receive it. It’s important to address the reasons that people may be hesitant to receive a vaccine,” she said. “Most of the time it is due to wrong information on social media, misconstrued science or feelings of personal freedoms being violated, not actually due to the vaccine or its effects.”

Persons concerned about the vaccine risks should weigh it against the known risks of the disease, Healy said.

The CDC has reported during the past two weeks only about 20% of South Dakotans have had COVID, so vaccinations will provide the key to protecting the general public, she said.

“Herd immunity is generally considered in the 70-80% range. We are a long way from achieving that … Now we are building on that natural immunity with (mass) vaccinations,” she said.

Work remains against COVID, but the vaccination process has made tremendous strides in a short amount of time, Healy said.

“We’ve never worked through a vaccine rollout during a pandemic,” she said. “It may take a few weeks for us to get through every single person (who wants immunization), but I’m confident we’ll stay ahead of it.”

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