BISMARCK — Amid a lack of demand for the COVID-19 vaccine, North Dakota has donated 70,000 doses to other states over the last week.

State immunization manager Molly Howell told Forum News Service that the doses earmarked for North Dakota went into a newly created federal pool where states with a greater need for vaccine can claim them. Howell said she heard during a call with White House officials that three vaccine-hungry states have ordered doses from the pool, but she didn't know how many others joined North Dakota in yielding part of their stockpile.

The 70,000 doses account for close to two weeks' worth of North Dakota's regular allocation from the federal government, but Howell said the state couldn't continue to lay claim to a supply it was unlikely to use.

"We have more vaccine than demand, and it's unfortunate because those doses could've saved lives and hospitalizations," Howell said. "Ethically, I don't think we can save them or wait for people to make up their mind about vaccination when we have other states that are in need."

The doses given away were being held for North Dakota by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and never physically entered the state. Howell said vaccine providers in the state still have plenty of doses for anyone who wants a shot.

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At the beginning of the year, North Dakota's vaccine rollout ranked near the top of the national leaderboard, but the rate of shot administration began to level off at the beginning of April and has since almost flatlined. From May 2 to 9, fewer than 1,500 previously unvaccinated residents received a first dose, according to data from the state Department of Health.

With about 44% of adult residents fully vaccinated, North Dakota has recently fallen behind the national average vaccination rate, though Howell notes the state "hit a wall" faster than other parts of the country because of its successful rollout.

The majority of the idling demand for shots can be attributed to residents' skeptical attitudes toward the vaccine and denial of the severity of COVID-19, Howell said. Public health officials and doctors say concerns about the vaccine's safety are rooted in misinformation and do not reflect reality.

Others may think they don't need the jab since they already recovered from the disease — experts dispute this logic and recommend vaccination regardless of prior infection. And still, some residents are passive and just haven't gotten around to making an appointment, Howell said.

Immunization rates are particularly low in western North Dakota and among younger residents, Howell noted. The eight lowest vaccination counties in the state are situated in the west, including Williams, McKenzie and Grant counties, where less than a quarter of adults are fully inoculated.

North Dakotans should get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones, Howell said, adding that she's disappointed more residents haven't considered the communitywide benefit of mass immunization against the deadly disease.

"I'm from North Dakota, and I know people care about other people and help out when there are emergencies, and I did think North Dakotans would probably step up more and choose to get vaccinated," Howell said. “In western North Dakota, if someone gets hurt on the farm, everybody gets together and helps out, and this should be thought of in the same way, but I think people made up their minds so long ago that now it’s just hard to change their minds.”

North Dakota Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a press conference on March 3, 2021. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health
North Dakota Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a press conference on March 3, 2021. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health

The goal of reaching herd immunity from COVID-19 — which requires an estimated 70% vaccination rate — appears less realistic in the near term and may take months or years to achieve, Howell noted. That means residents will continue to fall ill and die from a preventable illness.

"North Dakotans just need to decide what level of COVID do they feel like is OK for their community," Howell said. "Are you OK with North Dakota still having deaths and hospitalizations due to COVID?"

Howell said public health officials will keep trying to persuade residents to get vaccinated and make shots as accessible as possible. A new campaign from the Department of Health will focus on administering jabs at doctors' offices where residents are often seeking treatment for a separate ailment, she said.

Gov. Doug Burgum told Forum News Service encouraging vaccination is "tough right now," noting that in the last month the state has had to transition from "rationing" vaccine doses to "marketing" them to a more hesitant population.

"It really has to be around incentives versus requirements to try to encourage people to get over" vaccine skepticism, Burgum said. The governor pointed to recent moves in other states — such as the governor of Ohio's announcement of a $1 million lottery prize for vaccine recipients and college scholarship opportunities for newly vaccinated young people — as intriguing ideas, but noted that tackling the problem will likely hinge on targeted, local efforts and patient conversations with their doctors.

In the meantime, Howell predicted that North Dakota will continue donating doses to other states on a weekly basis.

Reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, contributed to this story.