ST. CLOUD — The four-week COVID-19 pilot vaccine site in St. Cloud is on pace to vaccinate well over 5,000 people.

The program, held at the River’s Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud, is one of the nine State of Minnesota-run pilot vaccine sites. Shots are administered Thursday through Saturday on a by-appointment-only basis for seniors ages 65 and older, along with educators, school staff and childcare workers.

“We’re learning as we go,” said State Incident Commander Andrew Virden, who is in charge of the St. Cloud site. “This event staff is terrific, and the (River’s Edge Convention Center) is really set up for this type of thing. It’s also helpful that they’ve been doing testing here for quite a while, right on the other side of the building. People are familiar with the location, and the testing, so now they can come here to get their vaccine.”

Those arriving at River’s Edge for a vaccine enter through a different set of doors than those going to get tested. Last week, Virden says a team of between five and seven nurses administered around 1,200 Pfizer shots, up from the previous week. Virden says over half of those who received a shot were seniors, and no one had to be turned away due to a lack of supply.

“Thursday of this week, we did 437 vaccinations,” Virden said. “Yesterday, we did 465 - which was our single biggest day yet. Nurses gave between 12 and 15 shots every hour. So, that’s one shot every four or five minutes. It's been running very smoothly.”

Virden says the no-show rate in St. Cloud is low overall.

“And we haven’t wasted a single drop,” Virden said. “Just because we hit capacity doesn’t mean we throw any (vaccine) away.”

Wasting any amount of vaccine isn't ideal; right now, demand for the shots far outstrips supply. For example, Minnesota has around 1.5 million eligible adults age 65 and older - but only around a third of the necessary amount of vaccine, said Virden. A new supply is expected to arrive in Minnesota in February.

“I think last week we did about 13,000 vaccinations over nine sites,” Virden said. “It’s great, but it’s still insufficient. We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got, and when get more supplies of vaccine, we’ll begin to expand this. Right now, our job is to make sure that we manage this as best as we can, make sure we don’t waste doses, make sure we don’t turn away anyone who has an appointment, and accommodate as many people as we can who are on the wait list.”

While the pilot program as a whole experienced a rocky start due to online registration issues, Virden says operations at River’s Edge have been efficient. The process is quick, and appointments are evenly spaced throughout the day to prevent a bottleneck of people waiting in line for a shot.

“You show up, you check in, get your shot, you go through observation and then you’re back in the car,” Virden says. “Given the challenges we had with the (reservation system) last week, I think people are pretty pleasantly surprised. I had one guy tell me he thought there would be a line, or that he would have to wait outside.”

Virden says vaccine recipients spend the majority of their time in observation; after receiving a shot, each patient is led to a socially-distanced area next to the vaccination stations where they’re monitored for any signs of an adverse reaction.

“It could be between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on if you have any health conditions,” Virden said. “Adverse reactions (to the vaccine) have been very, very minimal at this site. But, like with any medical procedure, it’s better to be safe than sorry. We have a lot of trained medical professionals here, and if someone DOES have an adverse reaction, we’d prefer that it happen here instead of in their car, heading home.”

Newly vaccinated people are dismissed with information on possible side effects, along with instructions for how to proceed safely in coming weeks and months.

“Just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you couldn’t still be the transmitter of the virus,” he explained. “You need to still continue to physically distance. You still need to wear your mask. But, you just probably won’t be quite as scared anymore.”

Virden says is been a pleasure to witness people reacting to the realization that they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“There was a woman standing in the doorway, and she appeared to be very, very shaken up,” he said. “And, I was afraid it was a medical condition or an adverse reaction to the shot. So, I approached her and said, ‘ma’am, can I help you?’ And she was quivering and looked up and started to cry. She said, ‘I haven’t hugged my grand-baby since March.’ We’ve had people come through here and tell us this is the first I’ve they’ve left their homes since the Stay-at-Home order began.”

“The emotion people are expressing with this is absolutely amazing,” he added.

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