'This is the beginning of the end': Bemidji doctor marks months of treating COVID patients with vaccine

A health care worker gets vaccinated for COVID-19.
A small group of doctors, nurses and local reporters watch Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah and five other front-line workers at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center get doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday.
John Enger | MPR News

This summer, the COVID-19 ward at Bemidji’s Sanford hospital was empty — and had been for weeks.

It was Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah’s job to prepare the hospital for an influx of patients — to brace for the first wave — and then help care for them.

By fall, the cases had started coming. Soon the unit was full. The hospital had to double the size of its critical care unit. 

Things got progressively worse, Abdelfattah said, one week after another.

Early this month, the hospital was treating 35 COVID patients at once — its highest number yet.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Abdelfattah said, he’s watched 30 patients die of COVID-19. Over the past six months, he said, there has been very little to be optimistic about. 

Until Thursday.

A doctor in his mask.
Minutes after getting his first dose of the new Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, Dr. Ramy Abdelfattah said he believes this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
John Enger | MPR News

On Thursday, Abdelfattah was the first of six staff members at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center to get a first dose of the new COVID-19 vaccine. 

A small group of doctors and nurses watched, as the needle went into his left shoulder. They cheered through their face masks, more out of relief than anything else. 

“This is the beginning of the end,” Abdelfattah said. “I’m just thinking about the numbers of lives saved if we all get the vaccine. That’s what’s going to make us have a brighter future.”

The Sanford hospital in Bemidji, Minn., has received a shipment of just under 1,000 doses of the two-dose vaccine. Seven hundred of those doses are slated to be administered to the hospital’s medical staff, with the rest heading to other rural hospitals in the region, as part of Minnesota’s hub-and-spoke approach to administering the high-maintenance vaccine.

The health system plans to scale up distribution soon, to other front-line workers and residents of extended care facilities. 

And as more people are vaccinated, it will still take some time to notice a change in day to day life — months, probably, Abdelfattah said. And he knows even that estimate is optimistic. 

A doctor signs paperwork before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Rami Abdelfattah, right, was the first at Sanford Medical Center in Bemidji to get the new COVID-19 vaccine. He had to sign a lot of paperwork before he was allowed to be injected.
John Enger | MPR News

He’s been watching each vaccine development like a hawk — reading the medical literature in the evenings, when his kids are in bed. He puts this vaccine on par with scientific achievements like the moon landing. 

“I don’t recall anything in medical history close to this victory,” he said.

He’ll get his second dose early in the new year. 

Amy Magnuson on Bemidji vaccine rollout
by Cathy Wurzer, MPR News

Hear more about the vaccine rollout from Amy Magnuson, director of primary care and clinics at Sanford Health Bemidji.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.