Bemidji pharmacy's first day of COVID vaccinations offers glimpse of hope — and a step toward normalcy

A woman waits to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Bev Erickson was the first person to get the COVID-19 vaccine from Bemidji’s Thrifty White pharmacy Thursday morning. Pharmacy chains administering the vaccine is a big step toward accessibility.
John Enger | MPR News

The Bemidji Thrifty White is nestled in the back corner of a grocery store. It’s small, only separated from the racks of potato chips and toilet paper by a kitchen-sized square of faux wood linoleum.

The scene there Thursday morning was almost mundane: a half-dozen people waiting, socially distanced, to be vaccinated. It barely looked any different from a regular flu shot season.

But it was different.

“It feels very good. It was a painless shot into freedom,” said Bev Erickson.

She had the first appointment Thursday morning.

She’s been living a very small life for about a year, she said — no trips, very few gatherings. She hasn’t seen her grandkids in months.

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But in six weeks, at about the point when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says her second dose will have fully kicked in, she said she’s driving straight to the Twin Cities to see them. And she wasn’t the only one with freedom on her mind.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout hit another milestone this week — with people 65 and older now able to be sign up for a limited number of appointments at some local retail pharmacies like Walmart, Walgreens and Thrifty White, a chain with locations across rural Minnesota.

And along with that expansion came, for many people — Erickson included — a solid glimpse at the possibility of returning to some form of normalcy.

The small crowd at the Bemidji Thrifty White on Thursday had a very last-day-of-school sort of vibe.

People were making plans.

After Erickson was Paul Bengtson, a retired dentist. He had knee replacement surgery a week ago, and was using a walker to get around.

“I’ve got two bad knees,” he said. “I wrecked the first one mountain climbing in South America. Coming down off Chimborazo, I hurt my ACL [and] had to short-rope down. And I damaged the other guy walking across England.”

Bengtson spent his whole life traveling the world. But between his knees and the pandemic, he’s been living in what has felt to him like captivity.

When his vaccine appointment came through, he said, he wept with relief.

As soon as the shots have taken effect and experts say it’s safe to travel — and his knee can bend again — he said, he’s getting on a plane to Florida.

Another woman in line said she’s heading to her home in California, once she’s gotten her second dose and it’s safe to travel. Another: her kid’s place in Idaho.

They all plan to keep wearing masks, to follow guidelines and stay vigilant. But as soon as it’s safe, they’re going to do all that stuff someplace else.

It was 20 below zero when the vaccinations began on Thursday. It’s normal, during a February in Bemidji, to want to flee. It’s also normal to go to a pharmacy to get a vaccination, and to make small talk with the people waiting around you.

And as the COVID-19 vaccine slowly becomes available to more people, it’s beginning to offer glimpses of the possibility that life might someday go back to some sort of normal.

It’s strange to witness — normal.

Things haven’t been normal in a long time.

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.