- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota expects to receive nearly 8,000 COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as Dec. 15, health officials said during a Tuesday conference call with the state’s health care providers.

The prospect of vaccines being just weeks away offered a blip of good news in the state’s coronavirus crisis, but officials from the Department of Health said they don’t yet know when more doses will arrive. While the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines has been accomplished in record time, they likely will not come soon enough to prevent a winter of virus cases.

Health officials hope to see medical providers begin administering the 7,800 doses of the vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer Inc., the day after the shipment is received. Medical workers are expected to be at the top of the list to receive vaccines, with the elderly and other vulnerable populations soon to follow.

“We’ll have vaccine on the ground before you know it,” said Tim Heath, the immunization program coordinator.

The initial shipment will be enough to begin vaccinations, which require two doses spread over three weeks, for about 1% of the state’s roughly 885,000 people. But health officials have been preparing health care providers to administer vaccines en masse once they are in plentiful supply.

Pfizer Inc. is applying for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration. The pharmaceutical company, along with its German partner BioNTech, have said a large, ongoing study shows the vaccine to be 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease.

South Dakota’s largest hospital systems have said they expect it to take several months before vaccines are available to the general public. In the meantime, they are doing everything they can to be ready for their arrival, even performing a dry-run of receiving a vaccine shipment.

Heath said that Sanford Health is expected to receive an empty cooler this week like the ones that will carry the vaccine. The vaccine must be stored at ultra-cool temperatures, which has added another logistical challenge.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health reported that active coronavirus cases in the state have declined to 14,088. It also reported one of the lowest numbers of new cases, with 448 people testing positive. But health officials reported two more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the tally to 948 deaths during the pandemic.

The average number of cases reported daily over the last week has decreased to 945, but the state still ranked third in the country in new cases per capita in the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. One in every 133 people in South Dakota tested positive in the past week.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health reported it has hired a former press secretary from President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign to serve as its communications director.

The health department’s former spokesman, Derrick Haskins, has handled media relations throughout the pandemic, but resigned on Nov. 6. He will be replaced by Daniel Bucheli, who is slated to begin the role on Dec. 9.

The health department said Bucheli was hired after two rounds of interviews. KELO-TV first reported his hiring.

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