BEMIDJI -- Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota was given the greenlight Tuesday to expand its coronavirus vaccination efforts to more of the general population, starting with those ages 65 and older.

With the authorization coming from the Minnesota Department of Health, Sanford was able to administer doses to 10 patients Tuesday afternoon, with more expected in the coming days as appointments are made.

Two of the people getting vaccines on Tuesday were Sheryl Austin and her mother Cathy Rothfield. Both were very excited to get the shots and begin moving back toward normalcy.

"Getting a vaccine today brought me to tears, it still does," Austin said. "To be able to go to my mom's and not wear a mask. We just want to be able to look at each other's smiles."

"To be together, that's what this represents to us," Rothfield said. "We're so appreciative to be able to get it."

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Louise Jackson cheers after receiving an initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Louise Jackson cheers after receiving an initial dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

This most recent development comes as Sanford has vaccinated about 1,500 members, or close to 70%, of its staff. As part of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout by MDH, Sanford -- as a regional hub for the northwest region of the state -- has also been responsible for storing and providing the vaccine to other regional providers.

Across the state, the first phase of the vaccination process was focused on health care workers and the most vulnerable populations. The phase began on Dec. 18, when the first vaccines were administered to frontline workers at the Sanford Health Medical Center in Bemidji.

"Like everybody did, we started vaccinating our frontline workers, and we've had just great success with our health care staff stepping up and receiving it," said Susan Jarvis, president and CEO of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. "A good amount of our long term care residents have also received their first dose and are in the process of getting their second."

Vaccines were issued to senior living residents in early January, and the latest decision by MDH will allow Sanford to expand their vaccination push to patients age 65 and older.

"We received 300 doses to start giving vaccinations to those 65 and up," Dr. David Wilcox, Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota vice president medical officer, said on Tuesday. "We've been making plans for a long time and have been preparing to vaccinate this group, but hadn't been given the vaccine supply, so we're happy to get started."

Patients wait to receive their initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Patients wait to receive their initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

According to Wilcox, Sanford Health, along with partner organizations and providers, are working on a process now where patients will be notified via an invitation with a phone number to call and schedule an appointment for their vaccination. Sanford Health officials have also stressed that while the provider has the infrastructure to administer doses, the vaccine supply is still very limited.

When patients do go in for the vaccine, Wilcox said they will go through a screening process to review the person's medical history.

Patients will be asked if they've had severe reactions to vaccines in the past and if they've been given another vaccine for another disease, such as shingles, in the last 14 days. Additionally, Wilcox said people who have had COVID-19 and were treated with monoclonal antibodies in the last 90 days will not be a candidate, as they may not have a good response to the vaccine.

"The vaccine has been really safe and effective," Wilcox said. "The safety studies have never had shortcuts. We feel very confident about the safety and (ethicalness) of this vaccine."

For this new phase, Wilcox said it will work similar to how the first one went when it started in December.

"It's the same strategy where you get through as much of the current group as you can and then start with the next group," Wilcox said. "It's very important for our citizens to understand that it's still necessary to maintain all of our prevention measures. Social distance and wear masks. We won't be out of the woods until we get to 70 to 80% of our population vaccinated."

Kell Lovell and Flavia Sagedahl have their photo taken after receiving initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Kell Lovell and Flavia Sagedahl have their photo taken after receiving initial doses of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)