‘Great day’: VA starts vaccinations at Minneapolis hospital

Thera Witte, RN, speaks during a press conference.
Thera Witte, a COVID-19 clinic nurse, is among the first health care providers to get a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis. “I feel safe,” she said. The VA was administering about 100 doses as its initial first day trial of vaccinations.
April Eilers | Courtesy of Minneapolis VA Health Care System

With cheers, applause and a bit of relief, Thera Witte, a 37-year-old front-line nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center rolled up her sleeve Tuesday to take one of the first COVID-19 vaccinations in the Twin Cities.

“I was just happy to do my part, and lead the charge in getting the vaccine,” said Witte, a nurse in the center’s COVID-19 clinic, as she recounted the scene for reporters.

“Honest, it didn’t feel like it would ever come,” Witte added, noting that she and her co-workers have been battling the coronavirus for nearly a year. 

Shots are heading into lots of arms now at the VA, one of the state’s largest medical centers, and at selected hospitals and clinics around Minnesota as shipments begin to arrive.

“It’s a great day,” said Patrick Kelly, the hospital’s director, in remarks in the lobby, about half an hour after the first shot was administered.

The VA plans to administer about 100 doses of the vaccine as part of a first-day pilot effort to make sure all the right procedures are in place and can be followed.

People pose for photos with a box.
Pharmacy students from the University of Minnesota gesture to friends to come pose for a photo with a box of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at North Memorial Hospital on Tuesday in Robbinsdale, Minn.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

VA hospital officials say part of the challenge is that the vaccine expires six hours after it is prepared for injection, so recipients need to be lined up and ready to get it quickly, so that none is wasted. 

The Minneapolis VA is one of the first five out of 153 sites in the Veteran’s Affairs system to get the vaccine and start administering it. The hospital has been preparing since October, although final details of what they could offer have only been available in the last few days.

“Today it feels very real,” Gov Tim Walz said, congratulating the VA on kicking off what is likely to be a monthslong vaccination campaign across the state and country.

speaks during a press conference.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis Tuesday on the day the hospital started administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
April Eilers | Courtesy of Minneapolis VA Health Care System

VA officials said that while the vaccine has brought hope, veterans and other Minnesotans continue to fall ill, including veterans that have wound up in the VA’s intensive care unit. They urged Minnesotans to continue to fight the spread of the coronavirus, by wearing masks, washing hands and practicing social distancing.

The VA has also been part of the state’s coronavirus response for months: the medical center sent out 62 VA nurses to Minnesota nursing homes in May in June to help them cope with the pandemic.

“There are days where you come in and you’re just feeling down and you’re tired and exhausted and the staff is feeling the exact same way,” Witte said. “But having the knowledge that that vaccine was coming has been kind of helping morale in our area, again, knowing there is this light at the end of the tunnel.”

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