Giving it a shot

The entire nursing staff of Clay County Public Health has been involved in Covid vaccinations at the Hjemkomst Center for the past 12 weeks, along with their other duties. (Photo/Russ Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The nurses of Clay County Public Health passed the 10,000 mark earlier this week as they administered Covid-19 vaccine to residents in Moorhead.

“We’ve been vaccinating people since we got our first shipment of Moderna vaccine right after Christmas,” nursing director Jamie Hennen reports. The department’s entire nursing staff has rotated through the stations set up in the lower level of the Hjemkomst Center, first welcoming those 75 and older, then 65-plus, while prioritizing those with risk factors.

Following the phases set out by the Minnesota Department of Health, they have also assisted in immunizing other groups at special risk. Among them: K-12 teachers and child-care workers; food processing and hospitality workers; those employed in manufacturing; and others deemed to be most vulnerable to the virus.

This week, Gov. Tim Walz announced that all Minnesotans over 16 would be able to get their vaccinations. Public health director Kathy McKay says that’s true … but not quite yet.

“We’re still working on Phase 1c,” she cautions, adding that the vaccine supply continues to force some limitations. The current phase includes those employed in energy, finance, construction, legal practices, the media, and a number of county and city departments – engineering, transportation, water and wastewater, along older groups and people from 18 to 44 with two or more underlying conditions. “But we’ll get there soon.” (The minimum age now approved for the Moderna vaccine, which Clay County has been receiving, is 18; 16- and 17-year-olds do qualify for the Pfizer version.”

All would-be patients are required to register online on the county’s Covid-19 website or by telephone. Public health staff field hundreds of calls a week from people anxious to get in line. Accepting phone reservations, McKay and Hennen point out, helped get around one obstacle for older residents who are both at higher risk and less likely to have access to the internet.

The county’s operation operates in parallel with other sources of vaccination. The Sanford and Essentia health-care systems are leasing space at the Center Mall. The pharmacies at Walmart and Cashwise also offer vaccinations. All fall into different groups following separate regulations, McKay points out, which may cause some confusion in the public’s mind.

Too, Minnesota and North Dakota are governed differently by their state health agencies. “North Dakota has opened up to younger people before it’s happened on the right side of the river, the director points out. “On the other hand, we opened up to K-12 teachers and child-care before they did,” she notes.

Despite the disparities, the Clay County vaccination story is a tale of success. The Public Health team had given shots to 70% of the county’s residents over 65 as of last Friday, along with at least one dose to 38% of people ages 50 to 64. Overall, about 15% of the county’s total population had completed the two-shot Moderna series.

Counting all sources, including clinics and pharmacies, almost 25% of Clay County residents now have had at least one dose.

Volunteers a big help

Cheryl Sapp, the nurse who manages the vaccinations at the Hjemkomst, says volunteers have been a vital part of the county’s program. “We couldn’t have done it without our student nurses,” she says. Nursing students from Minnesota State, North Dakota State and Rasmussen Universities have been volunteering in teams of four, each with a licensed supervisor. Retired nurses, too, have stepped up to offer their assistance.

There’s a place for members of the public, too. They register patients at the intake stations, gather demographic information and verify people don’t have conditions that would prevent their shot.

When they arrive for their appointments, the masked visitors wait their turn in a large, socially distanced area between the center’s third-level stairs and its elevators. As their times come around, they’re called to one of the eight stations in the next room. The process is usually a quick one. They’re then asked to wait for 15 minutes to keep an eye out for serious reactions – something the nurses have almost never seen.

“People are so excited that it’s finally their turn. Even when we’ve had a delay in getting our vaccine, they’re patient and understanding,” Hennen observes. From the moment the Moderna vaccine arrives from Missouri on Tuesday morning, clinic sessions continue through Friday. While McKay has been requesting the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, her agency has yet to receive it; no Pfizer-BioGen doses have been allocated here due to their more stringent storage requirement.

The system has been running smoothly, says Sapp, with only one glitch: when people come in without appointments, either because they haven’t made one or because they hope to get a shot at the end of the day with left-over vaccine. Once each 10-dose vial of Moderna vaccine is opened, it must be used in six hours. “Once we had 45 people waiting and hoping,” she remembers. “But we never, ever will have that much left.”

McKay adds, “I’m proud to say we have not wasted one single dose. Every one has gone into an arm.”

She praises her staff, who are working both shifts in the vaccination clinic and their regular duties – family health visits, the daily clinic in the Family Service Center, and school nurse responsibilities in smaller Clay communities. “I have a great team,” she asserts. “Everybody steps up to the plate.”

“When this is over, it’s going to take another year for us to catch up on everything,” Hennen suggests, half joking.

While Clay County experienced its first Covid diagnosis in March 2020, she says her department has been prepared for such a crisis all along. They started laying out strategy for Covid-19 in January 2020, almost three month before the first local resident tested positive: “It’s been a long haul. We plan for pandemics – that’s what we do – but we hope we’ll never need to use it.

“Unfortunately, this time, we did.”

To sign up for vaccination by Clay County Public Health, go to and click the link; or call 218-299-7204.

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