At first, James Allison thought it might be a marketing scam.
Allison, a healthy and athletic 49-year-old Marine Corps veteran, was in the back seat of a pickup truck, on a long drive across the Upper Midwest after visiting his daughter in Virginia, when he suddenly got a text message saying he was eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine through the Veterans Health Administration.
With a couple of taps on his phone, Allison secured an appointment, and just days later, he was sitting in the waiting area of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center with his wife, Bethany, after getting his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine.
"Honestly, I'm still in shock because I never imagined it would be this fast and efficient," said Allison, who lives in western Wisconsin. "The VA is really looking out for us."
Three months after shots became available, the veterans' government-run health care system has emerged as a success story in the furious race to vaccinate people against the deadly virus.
Nearly 40% of the patient population of the Minneapolis and St. Cloud VA health systems have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine — a rate that has far outpaced the rest of the state and has buoyed the spirits of tens of thousands of veterans across the region. Nationally, the Veterans Health Administration — the nation's largest public health system — has fully vaccinated nearly 1.6 million people, more than Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota combined.
At VA clinics and hospitals across the region, distribution of the shots has been swift, efficient and highly coordinated — a stark contrast to the chaos and dysfunction that have marred the rollout in the fragmented private health system. Veterans enrolled with the VA are able to secure vaccine appointments within minutes, often for the next day. Owing in part to this efficiency and the VA's outreach efforts, vaccine acceptance rates have stayed persistently high. Only 4% of those offered the shots by the Minneapolis VA have refused them, say hospital officials.
The rollout has been so efficient that last week both the Minneapolis and St. Cloud VA health systems, which together serve nearly 120,000 enrolled veterans, announced they had expanded eligibility and are offering vaccine appointments to enrolled veterans of any age. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a law that requires the VA to provide shots to any veteran who wants one, regardless of whether they are enrolled, as well as their spouses and caregivers.
In Minnesota, veterans do not even have to make a phone call or go online. They can tap a text on their smartphones to set up a vaccine appointment immediately. By contrast, many civilians have spent weeks trying to arrange vaccine times through a complicated patchwork of private pharmacy and clinic websites. People who reached out to their clinics often were told to wait for return calls that never came. Frustrated by delays, thousands have traveled out of state to get the shots.
Both in Minnesota and nationally, veterans have benefited from a highly integrated system — one in which outpatient clinics, hospitals, pharmacies and community centers all share information with one another, and have proved adept at orchestrating a public inoculation campaign with a consistent message. Many Minnesota veterans described how it has been nearly impossible to avoid the relentless drumbeat of e-mails, text messages, social media posts and reminders from their physicians and pharmacists to get the shots — not just for their own health, but for the community's benefit.
"The bottom line is, so many people who work here are veterans," said Dr. Aaron DeVries, an infectious disease specialist at the Minneapolis VA. "There is a common sense of urgency."
Quick to mobilize
Much of that urgency stems from the vulnerable nature of the VA's patient population. Veterans tend to be sicker, poorer, older and have more chronic mental health problems than the population as a whole. As a result, they tend to be at greater risk of dying or becoming hospitalized with the respiratory illness.
Despite these challenges, multiple health studies in recent years have found that care at VA hospitals is equal — and often superior — to that provided by their counterparts in the private sector. A national study last fall found that veterans who get their care through the VA are significantly less likely to die, both during and after a medical emergency, than those receiving care in non-VA facilities.
"The big difference is they know who their patients are and they don't just sit back and wait for veterans to come to them," said Suzanne Gordon, senior policy fellow at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute and author of two books on veterans' health care. "They also know how to mobilize people quickly during a national emergency because they've been doing it for decades."
That militarylike efficiency was on display earlier this week at the sprawling, 309-bed VA Medical Center in south Minneapolis, which has the capacity to vaccinate up to 9,000 people a week. A small army of red-vested volunteers bearing tall "Vaccine" signs waved veterans of all ages toward an expansive, brightly lit atrium, where more than a dozen nurses waited in clearly numbered booths. Many of those who arrived were able to get in and out of the complex in less time than it takes to make a meal or watch a television show.
"There is an aura of respect when you walk through those doors [of the Minneapolis VA] and that builds trust," said Jeff Roy, 73, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in St. Louis Park and got both shots at the hospital.
The Minneapolis VA has been particularly efficient — out-jabbing many of its larger peers in the vast veterans' health system. Specialists at the complex and its network of clinics have administered nearly 80,000 shots to veterans, which ranks the Minneapolis hospital as fifth in the nation among 140 qualifying VA medical centers.
Some of the veterans who arrived this week said they felt a sense of public duty, similar to serving their country, after learning they were eligible for the vaccine.
"If the VA calls you and tells you to get a shot, then you don't hesitate or think about it. You just do it," said Christopher George, 36, a veteran of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after getting his first shot this week at the Minneapolis VA. "They have demonstrated that they know what they're talking about."
Simpler and faster
No one is left alone after getting vaccinated. Staff and volunteers, who appeared to outnumber patients, walked amid the rows of veterans to check for any adverse reactions before clearing them to go home.
Arlys Herem, 72, a retired nurse who served in the Army Nurse Corps and the Vietnam War, felt a sudden wave of anxiety after getting her shot. Her fear stemmed from a frightening experience 18 months ago in which her body went into anaphylactic shock after she was given a special injection before an MRI scan. She nearly died of cardiac arrest and had to be rushed to an intensive care unit.
But on a recent afternoon, a Minneapolis VA nurse recognized Herem's angst and sat next to her in the waiting area, calmly talking to Herem until it was clear that she was fine and her fears had subsided.
"They treat you like a person, and not just a nobody to be pushed along," said Herem, who is active in a national campaign, known as Save Our VA (SOVA), to strengthen the veterans health system.
Gene Oelke, an 80-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps who lives in Janesville, Minn., said he relies on the VA for virtually all his medical needs, including his annual checkup, flu shot and eye exams. It's simpler and faster than going to a private clinic, he said, because they can quickly pull up his complete medical record.
"Sometimes you go into a regular doctor's office, and you have to sit there for quite awhile and then explain who you are," Oelke said.
Since getting his second vaccine shot early this month, Oelke has begun to return to the active life that he knew before the pandemic. That includes participating in a ritual of Lent known as the Stations of the Cross, a procession that evokes the final journey of Jesus Christ. A year ago, he and his wife spent Easter alone; now they hope to enjoy a festive dinner at their daughter's home in Mankato with their 13 grandchildren.
"I don't think life will ever completely return to normal, but at least we can start loosening up and being friendly again," Oelke said. "After all, that's the Minnesota way."
Where to get help:
Military veterans interested in receiving care at the Veterans Administration (VA) who are not yet enrolled can apply for VA health care benefits online or call 1-877-222-VETS from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308