The Road to Herd Immunity
- March 18, 2021
Brookings County has come a long way since December 11 in the fight against COVID-19. That was the day the first COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer, was granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA. One week later on Dec. 18, the Moderna vaccine was also granted a EUA and Brookings Health System was administering Pfizer doses to its frontline healthcare team.
“In three short months we’ve made a lot of progress,” said President and CEO Jason Merkley. “I don’t think any of us were truly prepared for the rollercoaster of how quickly we’d need to get shots in arms, but thanks to our great team and our great community partners, including Avera Medical Group Brookings, Sanford Health Clinic Brookings, and the Brookings County Pandemic Preparedness and Coordination Committee, we’re inching closer to herd immunity.”
As of Wednesday, 7,034 Brookings County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, equaling 20 percent of the population. Of those 65 years of age and older, Brookings County ranks fifth in the state with 88.6 percent of that demographic vaccinated. Next door neighbor Kingsbury County ranks first in that age bracket with 95.8 percent vaccinated.
While progress is happening, Merkley also adds there’s still a long way to go.
“Many experts state that herd immunity happens when 70 to 90 percent of the population has been infected, either by way of catching illness or vaccinations,” said Merkley. “Based on our county population, we need to vaccinate roughly 24,500 to 31,500 people to reach that. The good news is that our vaccine allocations have been increasing. The four local pharmacies have also been receiving doses from the federal government. We’re able to achieve that number more quickly than when vaccinations first began, but there are still hurdles to jump over.”
Working through Phases
One of the hurdles the health system and its partners have been working through since mid-January is vaccinating phase 1d, the group defined by the South Dakota Department of Health’s vaccination plan as those 65 years of age and older, high-risk patients, residents in congregate settings, persons with underlying medical conditions under age 65, teachers and other school/college staff and funeral service workers.
As of Mar. 10, the Department of Health opened eligibility to the last portions of that phase, including educators and college students living in dormitories, the final population living in congregate settings. Brookings Health System is currently working with leadership at the local school districts and SDSU to arrange for vaccinations. The health system has also contacted registered daycares and funeral homes to schedule staff for vaccines.
“If you look just at SDSU, they have approximately 3,200 faculty and staff who now qualify as well as 4,500 college students in the dorms,” said Merkley. “Even if between us and the pharmacies we receive 1,300 to 2,000 doses per week, it will be April before we can make sure those eligible individuals have an opportunity to receive the vaccine. Then we can move on to phase 1e.”
The Department of Health announced that on Mar. 22 they would open up vaccine eligibility to phase 1e which includes fire service personnel as well as personnel from the federal government’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors. That includes people who work in water and wastewater, energy, finance, food service, food and agriculture, legal, manufacturing, shelter and housing, transportation and logistics, information technology and communications.
Opening up to phase 1e is several weeks ahead of the Department of Health’s original plan.
“Most other counties do not have the university population that we do. It’s much easier for them to move on to vaccinating phase 1e,” said Merkley. “We, however, made a commitment to the Department of Health and a promise to SDSU that we would administer vaccines to our local university staff and students living in the dorms. As such, our vaccine supply we receive from the state must go toward offering those in phase 1d an opportunity first.”
Brookings Health hopes to partner with the Brooking County Pandemic Preparedness and Coordination Committee sometime in April to offer a first dose community vaccination center for phase 1e.
The number of people willing to receive the vaccine is another hurdle to achieving herd immunity. According to poll data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 24 percent of rural populations are more likely to say they will “definitely not” get the vaccine compared to urban and suburban counterparts. Nineteen percent of rural populations are in the “wait and see” category.
KFF also states those who are in the “definitely not” and “wait and see” categories are more likely to believe in or be unsure about vaccine myths, meaning they are less likely to willingly receive the vaccine.
One common myth: the vaccines contain the live virus and cause people to get sick with COVID-19.
“None of the approved vaccines use the live virus that causes COVID-19,” said Brookings Health System’s Pharmacy Director Steve Timmerman, Pharm. D. “Instead each vaccine focuses on a specific spike protein on the virus. The vaccines teach the immune system to recognize that spike protein as foreign and triggers an immune response.”
Another common myth is that the vaccine causes female infertility.
“While fertility was not specifically studied in clinical trials of the vaccine, no loss of fertility has been reported among trial participants or among the millions who received the vaccines since their authorization, and no signs of infertility appeared in animal studies,” says Timmerman. “In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine issued a joint statement in February recommending the vaccine be available for pregnant women and that loss of fertility is scientifically unlikely.”
Brookings Health has posted explanations for these and other common vaccine myths on their website, brookingshealth.org/vaccine.
“We’re doing our best to dispel the misinformation that is out there,” said Merkley. “Scientific data continues to show the vaccines are safe and effective. More importantly they prevent severe illness from COVID-19 which can result in hospitalization and deaths. And they are the quickest way for us to all get back to things we love and miss like filled sports stadiums, large weddings, family reunions and shaking hands.”
About Brookings Health System
Brookings Health System, located in Brookings, South Dakota, includes a 49-bed hospital, the 79-bed The Neighborhoods at Brookview nursing home, Brookhaven Estates senior living apartments, Yorkshire Eye Clinic & Optical, and medical clinics in Arlington, White and Volga, South Dakota. It is a non-profit, city-owned facility that offers the community a full range of inpatient, outpatient, emergency and extended care services. Brookings Hospital provides local access to doctors in Brookings and offers robotic da Vinci surgery and Mako robotic-arm assisted procedures, making it one of the premier rural community hospitals in South Dakota. For more information about the services offered at Brookings Health System, please call (605) 696-9000 or visit us on the Web at brookingshealth.org.