FARGO — Many teachers across North Dakota are rolling up their sleeves for COVID-19 vaccine shots, but in Fargo and West Fargo educators are still wondering when their turn will come, with some deciding to seek out the vaccine on their own.
Frustrated with the wait, dozens of local teachers have been traveling to Thrifty White pharmacies around the region recently to get their first doses under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which distributes vaccines directly to pharmacies.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, March 3, Thrifty White Pharmacy reported they had about 600 vaccine openings in North Dakota and about 3,440 openings in Minnesota for teachers, school staff, people age 65 and older, and residents living in congregate settings.
Some Fargo teachers have also looked across the Red River to get in line in Minnesota where teacher vaccinations started in January, but have had little luck, said Kathy McKay, administrator of Clay County Public Health.
“I understand the frustration," McKay said. “But we’re not allowed to do that in our state. We had a lot of requests from Fargo teachers, but we just have enough to get to our schools and that’s it. We couldn’t share that vaccine with North Dakota."
Jennifer Mastrud, president of the Fargo teachers union, said educators have been frustrated with the vaccine rollout. She knows teachers who took a day off work to travel to Thrifty White pharmacies to receive their first vaccine doses.
Mastrud, who works as a teacher in the district and has recovered from COVID-19, traveled to the White Earth Tribal Nation to receive her first dose.
"It was a well-oiled machine when I went up there. And it was great to see the tribal community say that the communities around us actually affect their community, too, and they see that, so they want to do some things to broaden herd immunity," Mastrud said.
McKay said Minnesota is nearly finished fully vaccinating all school employees across the state because Gov. Tim Walz prioritized teachers to better reopen schools safely. “And it was different than what Fargo was doing, just because Fargo was really following the federal guidance, but our governor changed that for Minnesota,” McKay said.
Clinics in some rural North Dakota counties are starting to offer vaccinations to K-12 school staff, according to the state’s Department of Health vaccine dashboard.
“Current priority groups being vaccinated varies by local area, therefore, there will be slight differences when teachers will be vaccinated by healthcare providers. There are some providers in state vaccinating teachers,” said Molly Howell, North Dakota's immunization program manager.
In Fargo and West Fargo schools, however, employees are still waiting, and health officials aren’t sure when they’ll begin to receive vaccinations.
“Workers employed by preschools or Kindergarten through 12th grade are in the priority group after child care workers” who began receiving vaccinations this week, said Holly Scott, a spokeswoman for Fargo Cass Public Health. “We do not have a timeline in terms of when we will start providing vaccines to this next priority group.”
Timing is difficult to pin down as supply and the uptake of the vaccines by earlier priority groups are factors that cannot be predicted, Howell and Scott said.
In North Dakota, a total of more than 232,079 vaccine doses had been given as of Wednesday, and about 77,797 people had received a second dose, according to the state health department.
In Minnesota, 928,963 people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 484,383 people had gotten a second dose, according to health officials.
While North Dakota's vaccination plan says vaccines must be distributed fairly, places such as Fargo with denser populations naturally take longer than rural areas to move through the priority list, said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the state’s largest union that represents teachers.
“We have seen an uptick in the number of teachers who have received vaccinations,” Archuleta said of teachers across the state. “But you don’t wait in, say, Sioux County for Cass County to catch up. It’s not surprising that in Fargo they’re getting to teachers a little slower than other parts of the state with sparse populations."
Both Fargo and West Fargo school districts are aware that some teachers are seeking vaccines on their own. West Fargo had about 1,354 staff and Fargo had about 1,577 staff sign up for the vaccine late last year. Teachers who do get vaccinated now are encouraged to alert their districts to be removed from the vaccine sign-up list.
Because of how the West Fargo School District arranged its vaccine priority list, it's hopeful that once teachers begin receiving vaccinations the impact per building will be minimal if teachers suffer side effects, said district spokeswoman Heather Leas.
"However, we have discussed online learning days as a solution if we have too many staff from one building that are able to be vaccinated at the same time and suffer adverse reactions," Leas said.
Fargo Public Schools spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said the district is ready for the rollout after child care workers have finished being vaccinated, and that the district is "thrilled that there are a variety of locations that K-12 staff members can receive a vaccine if they desire one."
In the Moorhead School District, all staff have had the chance to be vaccinated through Clay County Public Health, said district spokeswoman Brenda Richman.
Bryan Thygeson, superintendent of the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District, said all staff have received their first dose and that about 90% will receive their second dose by the end of next week.
Teacher morale is improving, Thygeson said. “It’s been a positive. It’s definitely lowered anxiety,” he said.
Last week, about 10 district staff complained of dizziness and low-grade fevers after receiving the first dose, so the district held a distance learning day on Feb. 26, Thygeson said. All staff are back to normal routines this week, he added.