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South Dakota Among Leading States In COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In November, South Dakota was leading the nation in COVID-19 deaths per capita. Dr. Shankar Kurra of the Monument Health Rapid City Hospital gave us a pretty grim outlook at the time.

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SHANKAR KURRA: The spread is uncontrolled. There is no mitigation or suppression. And what it has done is put a lot of strain on our capacity in the hospital.

CHANG: Now, two months later, cases and deaths are down, and South Dakota stands out for a different reason. It's one of the nation's leaders in vaccine distribution. So we thought we would check back in with Dr. Kurra.

Shankar Kurra, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KURRA: My pleasure, Ailsa.

CHANG: So it does seem like your state has done a pretty good job getting the vaccine out and actually into people's arms. What do you attribute that success to?

KURRA: Yes, that's correct. It's quite remarkable. I'd say the key factors here are we're the only health system for western South Dakota. And since the state was giving the entire allotment for the western half to us at Monumental Health, we then had from one place to dispense that and message it out and make sure people got it. So centralized distribution helped to get those numbers out. And actually, we get about roughly 3,000 vaccines a week, and by the end of the week, we have given 100%. Actually, last week we gave 102% because that extra 2% is that additional sixth dose that we got out of some of those...

CHANG: Pfizer vaccines.

KURRA: Yes, yes.

CHANG: And I'm curious. Do you think because people in South Dakota saw such a massive outbreak only back in November, it actually motivated many of them to get the vaccine as quickly as it was available to them?

KURRA: I believe so. I think it made a significant impression on the collective memories of South Dakotans and really, in my opinion, led a lot of folks to say, if the vaccine's out, I need it, and I will take it. And we also had folks leading up to the vaccine asking when it would be here. And once it got here, we got a lot of emails, texts, phone calls from everyone wanting to get the vaccine. So I think it played a role.

CHANG: Now, what have been the biggest hurdles so far in distribution?

KURRA: I think not knowing what the number would be. So I'll give you a brief timeline how we do this. We don't know what we're getting until Monday. Actually, Monday's when the state asks each health system - there are three in South Dakota, Monument being one of them. And they ask us, hey; how's it going? Where do you think you need more numbers? And we have to justify that, obviously, and then also ask us what group we are in. So on Tuesday, the state actually allocates and sends it out. So by Wednesday, we've got a list drawn, schedules opened. And Thursday and Friday it really picks up steam. So it's kind of a slow start, but then you've got to get it all done.

CHANG: OK. Well, granted that, you know, every state has its own unique challenges when it comes to vaccine distribution, can you talk about any of the lessons that you've learned so far that you can offer to other states that are struggling a little more with distributing the vaccine?

KURRA: I think the lessons we learned quickly was - you know, our mission is to make sure those don't sit in this cold storage. So I think getting them quick, not worrying too much about - you know, if you give five doses and you have an extra dose, find someone - how quickly, how flexible, how agile is the decision-making at the point of delivering those vaccines.

CHANG: Well, for you personally, you've been engaging with your community throughout this pandemic. How does it feel to finally see vaccines being administered?

KURRA: Immense relief and true gratitude to the scientists, to the researchers who've done that. We can't rest. I mean, as Monument Health System and the State Department of Health, we can't rest till we can get at least 80% of our population vaccinated.

CHANG: So how long do you think it will take for South Dakota to get 80% of people vaccinated at the rate that it's going now?

KURRA: We - at the rate we are going with the supply we're seeing, I expect most of us to get the vaccination late summer, even fall. I don't expect it any sooner unless we get more vaccines authorized emergently, but we want to get 80% by late fall.

CHANG: Dr. Shankar Kurra is vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health Rapid City Hospital in South Dakota.

Thank you so much for joining us again.

KURRA: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.