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Tribune editorial: Who’s first to get vaccine a tough call

Tribune editorial: Who’s first to get vaccine a tough call

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North Dakota faces some tough decisions, possibly beginning next month, on who gets vaccinated first for COVID-19. The state has created a Vaccination Ethics Committee to recommend the order in which people get vaccinated.

It’s a task that will require the wisdom of Solomon along with the knowledge of science and medicine. Already the initial number of doses of the Pfizer Inc. vaccine that the state will receive has been reduced to under 7,000 from the original estimate of 23,000 doses.

Three companies -- Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca -- have vaccines they will seek Food and Drug Administration approval to distribute. If more than one vaccine gets approval, it should increase the supply.

The ethics committee plans for the first round of vaccinations to go to health care workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, and long-term care residents and staff. The committee is being encouraged to consider priority for large referral hospitals, group home staff and prison health care staff.

These aren’t easy decisions, but the groups at the top of the list involve people who directly deal with COVID-19 patients. They are essential workers who can’t isolate and still do their jobs.

Arguments can be made to give priority to a variety of professions and age groups. Unfortunately, not everyone can go first.

The ethics committee has developed an extensive plan to get North Dakotans vaccinated. The state needs this strategy if it’s going to be successful. National health experts don’t expect widespread vaccinations to be complete until spring or early summer.

Hopefully, North Dakota will do a better job with vaccinations than it has done with COVID-19 antibody tests. In the spring the state purchased 178,000 serology tests with $3.68 million in CARES Act aid.

The serology tests can detect antibodies in a person’s blood. If someone who has never had symptoms of COVID-19 tests positive for antibodies, it’s an indication they already contracted the virus but were asymptomatic. The antibody tests can provide a window on the spread of the coronavirus, but experts say its usefulness is in the long-term.

About 8,000 of the tests have been used in the state. Dr. Andrew Stahl, the former interim state health officer, was going to ensure the serology tests’ accuracy through voluntary testing of recovered people. He left the office before completing the task, becoming the second person to leave the job during the pandemic. He was followed by Dr. Paul Mariani, who stayed less than two weeks.

Dirk Wilke, former Department of Health chief of staff, now serves as interim director. He has no medical training. It’s inexcusable the state can’t keep a medically trained state health officer in place during a pandemic. The Tribune editorial board isn’t faulting Wilke, who has been tasked with running the department in the interim. The responsibility lies in the governor’s office.

It’s also disappointing that the health department hasn’t been able to validate the serology tests. So a $3.68 million investment sits on the shelf. It’s money that could have been put to other uses fighting the pandemic.

Fortunately, the ethics committee appears ready to distribute the vaccine. Vaccinations, along with continued use of masks and other safety procedures, could bring COVID-19 under control. It’s going to take time, and people must remain patient and careful.

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