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WASECA, MINN. – Rachel Zilberman sat socially distanced among strangers Wednesday afternoon inside the redbrick Thrifty White pharmacy on the town's main drag. Like many others here who came from the Twin Cities and beyond, she drove more than an hour across the Minnesota countryside to reach what has become the holy grail of the COVID-19 pandemic — the vaccine.

"In a month, I'll get the second dose and two weeks later I will be liberated," said Zilberman, a Little Canada resident who is counting the days until she reaches immunity against the deadly coronavirus. "It's been a depressing year."

Zilberman, who has an underlying health condition, is among scores of Minnesotans who have been willing to drive long distances to small-town pharmacies in recent weeks to get the vaccine and long-awaited protection from COVID-19.

With vaccine demand outpacing supply, many who are eager for the shot but haven't gotten one at a hospital, primary care clinic, local public health department or a state community vaccination site spend hours scouring retail pharmacy websites where scheduling is done on a first-come, first-served basis. Those pharmacies receive separate federal vaccine allotments, which are outside the state's control.

The Thrifty White pharmacy in Waseca, 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, is one of them.

"People want to get beyond the pandemic. They're tired of being nonsocial," said Steve Lienemann, a pharmacist who administered vaccines at Waseca's Thrifty White earlier this week. "Eventually they won't have to social distance or wear a mask anymore. We'll finally be able to see smiles again."

The quest for a vaccine has brought a steady stream of business through the door here, where on average two people are vaccinated every five minutes. That's nearly 200 people over an eight-hour day and nearly 1,000 people in a five-day work week.

About 90% of those sitting down for shots here live outside of Waseca, and more than half live more than 30 miles away.

Some stop long enough to get their shot and fill up their gas tank. A few grab a bite to eat and stop in a boutique or two. The most notable effect at the Thrifty White is a spike in greeting card sales.

"We've sold the most Hallmark cards that we ever have," said pharmacy manager Brittany Pfingsten.

Pfingsten's regular customers also have noticed the increase in foot traffic inside the usually quiet store, and a few have been miffed, fearing out-of-town folks are taking vaccines away from local people.

Sarah Schmidt, pharmacy manager at the Mankato Thrifty White, said she heard the same from some of her regulars. She and Pfingsten are loyal to their local customers, she said, but their job is to get shots in the arms of as many people as possible.

"We felt, 'come one, come all,' " said Schmidt, who oversees 10 other Thrifty White pharmacies in southern Minnesota. "We want all our spots [for appointments] full."

Schmidt and Pfingsten feel confident that they've vaccinated most local residents who are 65 and older. Robert Kelling, 68, of Waseca, is now in that group after getting his second dose this week.

"Having people here from the [Twin] Cities doesn't bother me," he said as he waited inside the pharmacy after his second vaccine dose Wednesday afternoon. "Everyone wants to get the shot."

For weeks, Kelling tried unsuccessfully to schedule an appointment.

"Getting onto the portal isn't easy for us older adults who aren't computer savvy," he said.

While he landed on a waiting list, his wife got her appointment in Owatonna, about 15 miles east. "You go where you can get them," he said.

Last month, he got the call asking if he could quickly get to his hometown Thrifty White because it had an extra dose at the end of the day.

"It's Waseca. It's a small town," he said. "Of course I could get there in 10 minutes."

Using leftover doses

Pfingsten said her pharmacy often ends the vaccination day at 5:30 p.m. with an extra dose — sometimes as many as five extra doses because there can be more vaccine in the vial than expected. That's when she starts calling people on the waiting list.

The remarks of gratitude are constant, Pfingsten said. The newly vaccinated talk about being able to hug their grandkids again, swim at the community pool, travel, gather with friends and waitress without the constant fear of getting seriously sick.

Others, like teachers and child care workers, are physically and mentally exhausted, Schmidt said.

"Now they can see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Glenn DelGiudice, 66, drove nearly 100 miles from Forest Lake to Waseca. As a two-time cancer survivor who has been subjected to chemotherapy and radiation, he's at risk of severe illness if he would get COVID-19.

"I was just going to wait it out because I live alone and I've kept to myself for most of the pandemic," he said. "I was surprised how relieved I felt when I got the appointment."

Others, like U.S. postal worker Stephen Van Zee, 43, of Farmington, felt the relief of checking it off the list of things that must get done to resume normal daily routines.

For Todd Nelson, 50, a United Airlines pilot who lives in Afton, vaccination means he and his colleagues can feel safer. "There are four people at risk in the cockpit if one person gets COVID," he said.

'Finding our groove'

For those charged with administering the shots, the race to vaccinate feels like a marathon. The days have been long and exhausting for Pfingsten and Schmidt.

Their company began giving shots in nursing homes and assisted living facilities shortly after Christmas. In February, vaccines became available in retail pharmacies like Thrifty White.

Those first two days, the Waseca pharmacy's 100 appointment slots were filled within five minutes. The pharmacy was inundated with phone calls from people who didn't know how to make the online appointment or were among those who didn't get one. Pfingsten has since hired three people to help with the demand and the extra work.

"We still have to take care of the normal business of people picking up prescriptions," she said.

But, she added, "we're finding our groove now," noting the pace of vaccinations likely won't ease for months before picking up again in the fall if school-aged children can be vaccinated before returning to class.

Eventually, the race to vaccinate will subside. Until then, Pfingsten and Schmidt revel in the joy people feel in sitting down for a shot.

"People just want to get back to the things they enjoy doing," Schmidt said. "And that makes everyone happy."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788