Veteran nurse Cathy Dichter said the first days of offering COVID-19 vaccines at the Mall of America, inside the vacant Bloomingdales, looked like pages from history books. Picture rows of nurses, working nonstop to meet demand.
"The lines were out the door, and there was even a traffic problem in the parking lot ... police were out there directing traffic," Dichter said.
"Everyone was frightened, scared, relieved that they were going to get their shot. Some would cry. Some would hug you. Some would just say 'I haven't talked to people in days. Can I just sit and talk to you?' Because it was during the time where everyone was shut in."
Dichter worked her last shift at the mall site's last day Friday, marking the end of an era for an emergency public-private partnership: the state's largest vaccine site at its largest entertainment destination.
One in every 50 vaccines in Minnesota was administered at the mall, more than 236,000 doses since the site first opened in February 2021. There was no rule book on how to vaccinate the masses in the midst of a pandemic, but the site opened when the mall was experiencing a COVID-driven economic downturn.
"Who would've thought that mall management and mall public relations people would be actively engaged with the Minnesota Department of Health on a global pandemic?" Gov. Tim Walz said during a visit Friday, thanking nurses and patients before what he called the "flagship site" shuttered for good on Friday evening. He was joined by soon-to-be-former Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who is retiring.
"At a time of great uncertainty, a time of great angst for a lot of folks, a time when we were seeing globally and here across the country tens of thousands of people dying and being hospitalized, it was scary times," Walz said. "To have Jan Malcolm's steady, thoughtful, compassionate hand there is something that I personally know I will be forever grateful for."
Every day at 2 p.m. during the early part of the pandemic was the "Tim and Jan Show," Walz said, as the duo updated Minnesotans' COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths.
It's a different picture today, and Walz said there is much to celebrate. Still, he said the closure of the vaccination site should not be seen as a signal for people to lower their guard. He encouraged continued booster shots and respect for COVID-19 protocols.
Only 22% of people are up to date with boosters and 70% have a completed the vaccine series, according to MDH COVID-19 data.
"This is not over," Walz said. "It's moved to a more endemic state. But I think for many of us, we're watching with a very concerned eye on what's happening in China."
Malcolm said Friday there is much to celebrate but "certainly at a great cost." She said she hopes that "we all will learn these lessons and apply them to creating not only better plans for the future but more resiliency."
The closure is a transition from emergency to more traditional health care and public health operations, Malcolm said, with community clinics and pharmacies providing vaccine and testing resources. COVID-19 vaccine locations can be found online at mn.gov/covid19.
Dichter, a nurse of 25 years, works for Homeland Health Specialists, which staffed the mall vaccine site. She said she worries the closure of big state-run vaccination sites such as the mall will leave a gap in pediatric vaccine resources. Nurses at the state-run sites are trained to administer shots to children but pharmacies are not, she said.
She remembers serving kids ages 5 to 11 when the mall vaccine site started. That first Friday it administered 2,400 shots — mostly all to children. Dichter said it sounded like "an echo torture chamber with Disney music loudly infused amongst the clinic."
Staff added hopscotch to the waiting line, which parents enjoyed more than kids, she said.
Despite the circumstances, she enjoyed working at the site and the many "gifts" she received from patients and colleagues.
One young patient asked Dichter for items to put in a time capsule at school. Nurses gathered N95 masks, stickers and vaccination cards to contribute.
Another patient, before getting poked, revealed a fresh tattoo on the right arm that memorialized a loved one. They told Dichter that the person depicted in ink died of COVID-19. She gave him the shot, hiding tears behind her glasses, surgical mask and face shield.
Like working on the front lines that first day, she walked out Friday with a similar thought: "We left feeling like we did something important."