BISMARCK — As a young boy, Doug Burgum said he couldn't understand why his mother was so excited for the family to get the newly developed polio vaccine.
After maneuvering the deadly and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic as North Dakota's governor, the power of vaccinations couldn't be clearer to Burgum. The state's top "essential worker" received his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Bismarck on Tuesday, March 9, joining more than 157,000 residents in getting the jab.
"On a personal level, I understand vaccines are one of the great miracles of modern medicine," Burgum said. "It's very moving for me."
Burgum's respect for inoculations was firmly rooted long before COVID-19 upended life in his state, he said.
His grandfather, a medical doctor, decided to cross over from private practice to a public health job after witnessing the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Burgum said. That epidemic nearly killed an uncle. Another uncle was paralyzed for life after contracting polio.
The record-smashing speed with which several COVID-19 vaccines were developed is a testament to the "remarkable" innovation of the modern private sector, Burgum said.
"We're fortunate that it's 2021 and not 1918 because there's going to be (millions) of people around the world whose lives are saved or changed ... because of these vaccines," Burgum said.
The Republican governor applauded North Dakota's vaccine rollout, which has been one of the nation's most seamless. Vaccine providers in all 53 counties have opened up to essential workers, residents ages 16–64 with one or more high-risk medical conditions and others who fall into the Phase 1C priority group, according to a news release.
For state immunization director Molly Howell, getting the vaccine was a long time coming.
Despite playing a central role in directing North Dakota's vaccine distribution program, Howell had to wait her turn for a shot. Finally on Feb. 24, she got a call from the Department of Corrections that the agency had extra doses it didn't want to waste and she jumped at the opportunity.
After a stressful year, Howell said she was relieved to get the shot, but she was even more excited about her parents receiving their doses. Howell said she has limited time with her mother and father since the pandemic started, but she's comforted in knowing they can get together this summer.
Lindsey Solberg Herbel was thrust into North Dakota's spotlight last March as the sign language interpreter for Burgum. She has since appeared six feet to the governor's left at about 75 news conferences.
Solberg Herbel said the hardest part of the last year has been staying away from family. Her mother died a few months before the pandemic began, and she hasn't been home to see her father in Mitchell, S.D., since January 2020.
"We had to grieve the loss of my mother kind of on our own," Solberg Herbel said. "The first birthday without her was on Easter last year, and that was right when nobody knew anything (about the virus), so we had to do it apart. That's been difficult."
The interpreter also misses the little things. Her young kids haven't been able to eat in a restaurant or play sports in a year. She jokes it's been nice that she gets to go grocery shopping alone these days.
But Solberg Herbel got her first dose earlier this month, and she's already making plans to break out of the constraints of the last year. She wants to visit her dad and friends in South Dakota and let her young kids enroll in swimming lessons.
Solberg Herbel said she wanted to get the vaccine for her own personal safety, but also to protect elderly neighbors. She's hoping others will do their part in helping the state and nation reach herd immunity from COVID-19.
North Dakota residents can search for vaccine appointments in their area at www.health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator.
Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, contributed to this story. Contact Jeremy Turley at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jeremyjturley.