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First Mayo employees vaccinated for COVID-19 in Albert Lea

Mayo Clinic Health System began vaccinating health care staff at the Albert Lea medical center Monday with the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Sumit Bhagra, chairman of southeast Minnesota safety management and resources team for Mayo Clinic, called the day “a historic day indeed for southeast Minnesota.”

“The beginning of the end of the pandemic is here,” Bhagra said.

He credited the global cooperation in making it possible to distribute the vaccine in what he described as record time.

Vaccine distribution will occur in phases, with those at highest risk in the earliest phases. Most front-line staff who elect to be vaccinated will have their first shot completed within the next two to three weeks. The second shot will be administered three weeks later.

Bhagra estimated about 350 health care workers with Mayo Clinic Health System’s southeastern Minnesota region would be vaccinated by Christmas Eve.

“We are so excited to see the hard work and devotion of our teams paying off, and even more excited to see the vaccine coming to our friends, neighbors and colleagues as we hope for an end to this pandemic locally and worldwide,” said Robert Albright Jr., regional vice president for the southeast Minnesota region of Mayo Clinic Health System.

The first health care worker in Albert Lea to be vaccinated was Dr. Joshua Foong, a family medicine doctor, followed by Dr. Betzalel Reich, an emergency department physician, and Mitch Pederson, a respiratory therapist.

Getting the vaccine has been quite a humbling experience after going through all these few months of a lot of uncertainty and just not knowing what the next year would bring. …” Foong said. “This vaccine represents hope that we can at least finish the year off with expectations of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Reich said it was a special moment, not only for those who were able to receive the vaccine, but for all of their communities, as well.

“It does offer a tremendous amount of hope for the future,” he said.

He compared it to the winter solstice, which is the shortest and darkest day of the year. Going forward, the days will only become brighter with more optimism, he said.

Pederson said he was thankful — for himself, his family and his co-workers — and also commented on the speed that the vaccine was able to be distributed.

The doctors talked about their own research about the vaccine and its safety and said all of the health care workers lining up to be vaccinated is proof of its safety.

“The first opening or first availability for us to undergo vaccination, we’re standing here in hour number one, and we’ve done our homework, we’ve done our research,” Reich said. “We’ve talked with our loved ones all over the country, and you will see that health care workers will be lining up to get this vaccine because they know that the safety profiles and the effectiveness of this vaccine has proven to be excellent, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Bhagra compared COVID-19 to a wildfire.

“Everybody who gets vaccinated and develops protection against the virus, they cannot be the fuel that propagates the fire anymore…” he said. “If we have enough people in the community — whether it’s 50% or 60% — the fire has no option but to stop burning. In this case, the pandemic will extinguish itself if there’s ample number of people who have been vaccinated.”

He thanked the employees who signed up in the first week to get the vaccine and who in three or four weeks will no longer be susceptible.

Dr. Deepi Goyal, chairman of clinical practice for Mayo Clinic Health System’s southeast Minnesota region, said as a physician who has taken care of patients suffering from the virus and as someone who had the virus himself earlier in the summer, it was a joyous moment for him both personally and professionally.

“This vaccine is essentially an antidote to help stop the virus in its tracks, and it offers hope and healing from the devastating effects we’ve all seen during this pandemic,” he said.

A press release states health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the vaccine is one step in controlling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, everyone should continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask properly, wash your hands frequently and follow state and local recommendations until the spread has stopped.