A local volunteer firefighter stepped down out of his semi truck Tuesday, Dec. 29, and pulled up his shirt sleeve to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Carlton County Transportation Building garage.

Carlton County Public Health Nurse Mike Spoden stepped over and administered the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as the county public health and emergency management staff erupted into applause.

Carlton County employees applaud after the first emergency worker is vaccinated against COVID-19 at Tuesday’s drive-through clinic. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Carlton County employees applaud after the first emergency worker is vaccinated against COVID-19 at Tuesday’s drive-through clinic. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

It wasn’t the first vaccination administered in Carlton County and only about 100 people received it, but the drive-thru clinic was a practice run for larger public vaccinations officials will host later on and the culmination of months of planning.

“For many years, we planned for mass dispensing in person in a clinic style in a large conference room with people in lines in close proximity,” Carlton County emergency preparedness coordinator Ali Mueller said. “We knew with COVID and the safety mitigations put in place that wasn't going to work. So we decided to come up with the drive-thru model.”

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In fact, the county already had one practice run with a flu vaccination clinic earlier this year. Over two days, county officials administered about 700 flu shots and were able to begin making adjustments to make the COVID-19 clinics more efficient.

Mueller said traffic backed up out of the Transportation Building parking lot at the flu clinic and onto County Road 61, a busy road during the day.

“We were able to switch our entrance to the northwest entrance for this vaccine clinic,” Mueller said. “We’ll likely do that in the future so more people can safely queue on our property and we’re able to safely provide the vaccine to more people.”

Public health nurse Mike Spoden gives a COVID-19 vaccine shot to a part-time firefighter who was the first person vaccinated during a drive-thru clinic Tuesday, Dec. 29. The man, who consented to be photographed but didn’t want his name used, was allowed to leave his vehicle to receive the shot because he was driving a semi-trailer tractor. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Public health nurse Mike Spoden gives a COVID-19 vaccine shot to a part-time firefighter who was the first person vaccinated during a drive-thru clinic Tuesday, Dec. 29. The man, who consented to be photographed but didn’t want his name used, was allowed to leave his vehicle to receive the shot because he was driving a semi-trailer tractor. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Mueller and public health nurse Jenny Barta have worked since July to come up with a way to vaccinate a large number of people while maintaining COVID-19 protocols. They even worked with the county geographic information systems department to develop an online consent and screening form for participants to fill out before they arrive at the vaccination clinic to reduce time at the building and contact between public health staff and those receiving the shot.

“It was a very exciting experience,” county GIS coordinator Jared Hovi said. “It took a lot of work, but it really brought us to the point where we can keep that social distancing aspect. They don’t have to hand pens and papers back and forth.”

While Tuesday’s clinic only got the vaccine to about 100 people, Barta said she hopes it can be scaled up to the point where the county can vaccinate between 700 and 1,000 people per day — a huge step toward ending the pandemic.

“This COVID vaccine is a step in the right direction out of this pandemic,” Barta said. “We’re vaccinating people, one person at a time, one step at a time, but this is a giant leap out of this pandemic.”