BEMIDJI -- Health care workers making a few short steps to a chair for COVID-19 vaccinations represented a leap forward in the local fight against the coronavirus.

On Thursday afternoon, Sanford Health began vaccinating frontline health care staff at the Bemidji Medical Center. The individuals vaccinated were the first of many to receive doses of the Pfizer vaccine, as many more are scheduled over the weekend.

"We've identified our staff, physicians, nurses and anybody that is taking care of patients on the frontline, and we've offered appointments for vaccinations," said Susan Jarvis, president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. "We're starting today with three doctors and three nurses. We're going to be vaccinating today, then Friday, all day, and all the way through the weekend."

Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah, a special care unit physician and hospitalist who was the first to receive the vaccine Thursday, called the moment a "victory of science."

"It's a historic moment," Abdelfattah said. "I'm super excited today to be receiving the vaccine, and doing this for my family and my patients."

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Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah, a special care unit physician and hospitalist, was the first to receive the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Thursday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. It was given by registered nurse Heather Eichstadt. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah, a special care unit physician and hospitalist, was the first to receive the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Thursday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. It was given by registered nurse Heather Eichstadt. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The first doses of the vaccine arrived for Sanford on Monday and more are expected this week and next. In total, Sanford's Bemidji site will receive 2,925 total doses, with 800 of them being used for local frontline workers, and the rest going to other regional medical facilities.

The latter effort is part of Sanford's role in the Northwest Regional Healthcare Coalition. Because Sanford's Bemidji facility has sufficient ultra cold storage, it will break down and deliver the doses to other locations in Ada, Bagley, Baudette, Crookston, Detroit Lakes, Fosston, Kittson County, Mahnomen, Roseau, Thief River Falls and Warren.

Jarvis said after Sanford receives the initial 800 doses through the end of next week, the provider will continue to receive more. Those additional doses will cover the frontline workers, Jarvis said, and then there will be further rollouts.

According to Jarvis, the vaccine for COVID-19 is unique in some ways, and familiar in others. For example, the vaccine requires two doses over the span of about 21 days, which is similar to the Shingles vaccine, as Jarvis said that it also needs two shots. However, the cold storage aspect is where the vaccine stands more alone.

Dr. Joseph Corser, emergency department physician, receives the initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine from Rachael Jaranson on Thursday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Dr. Joseph Corser, emergency department physician, receives the initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine from Rachael Jaranson on Thursday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

"I think the vaccine is elegant in its conception," said Dr. Joseph Corser, an emergency department physician who was also vaccinated. "We've done a lot of due diligence in making it safe."

The path ahead

While the vaccines are now being given, Jarvis said it's important to remember this is just the beginning of the process.

"It's really going to be based on how the Minnesota Department of Health and how the vaccine is released by them," Jarvis said. "We know it will be for high risk individuals next, and we'll be working with them to identify those patients to get invitations out. But, we don't have a real set timeline just yet."

Susan Jarvis, President and CEO of Sanford Bemidji, speaks before the initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine were given on Thursday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Susan Jarvis, President and CEO of Sanford Bemidji, speaks before the initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine were given on Thursday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

As a result, Jarvis said it's important to maintain measures like masking and social distancing in the months ahead.

"We're just starting with a small portion of the population," Jarvis said. "For it to really be effective to stop the spread, we'll have to get a larger percentage of the population vaccinated. So, we need to continue to be diligent."

As the process does move forward, and more of the population gets vaccinated, Jarvis said it's also possible that different variations will be used.

"Because we have the capabilities, we'll use the Pfizer vaccine for a while," Jarvis said. "What we're hearing is that the Moderna (vaccine) and the others that don't require that deep freezing will probably go out to the areas that don't have those capabilities. I think once the supply chain really gets going, then we'll probably see a mixture."

Regardless of which vaccine is used, though, the beginning of the process was welcomed by healthcare workers Thursday. The first vaccinations come as Sanford Health is currently treating 21 patients for COVID-19. Since the pandemic started, the local health facility has treated 322 total patients, with 77 of them having been in the ICU and nine on ventilators. There have also been 32 deaths for Sanford in Bemidji.

Dr. Ariel Fernandez, a special care unit physician and hospitalist, receives the initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine from Claire Frenzel on Thursday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Dr. Ariel Fernandez, a special care unit physician and hospitalist, receives the initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine from Claire Frenzel on Thursday afternoon at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

"We've seen a lot of people unfortunately not do well with COVID and all the healthcare workers here have really dealt with a lot," said Dr. Ariel Fernandez, a special care unit physician and hospitalist. "This is a sign that better times are coming. It's truly a symbol of hope."