Meet Andrea Polkinghorn

Immunization Strategy Leader, Quality Strategy, Sanford Health

Andrea Polkinghorn, BSN, has not only been a member of the Sioux Falls Area Immunization Coalition but has led the alliance as president since joining in 2015. Now called Immunize South Dakota (Immunize SD), the coalition promotes immunization across the state.

“We recently made the decision to take our local coalition statewide,” says Andrea. “I’m excited to expand into other parts of the state to support the continued health of South Dakotans through strong vaccination rates.”

Despite vaccines being one of the 10 greatest public health achievements in the 20th century, there is a continued need for immunization coalitions to reduce barriers, encourage vaccination, and ensure information is accurate and science based. That is where Immunize SD comes in.

A dedicated network of community partners, Immunize SD works to increase vaccination rates and prevent disease through education, outreach, advocacy and policy. The coalition comprises health care professionals, scientists, and community and parent advocates who are interested in improving vaccination rates and health outcomes in South Dakota.

“You can find Immunize SD at community events educating the public. We also host an annual conference and Fight the Flu 5K, and we serve as experts for various speaking engagements across the state,” says Andrea.

Education and outreach

As the president of the coalition, Andrea has focused her efforts on building partnerships. In the last six years, she has developed strong relationships with both state and national organizations that include the South Dakota Department of Health, South Dakota Public Health Association, Families Fighting Flu and Unity Consortium.

“At first, it was really an opportunity to share about our organizations to see if there was potential to collaborate,” explains Andrea. “Once we made those connections, opportunities came out of the woodwork.”

In 2015, the Sioux Falls Area Immunization Coalition founded the first immunization conference in South Dakota – an event that has been held annually ever since. Next, they started the Fight the Flu 5K.

“We had this idea to host a 5K and offer flu vaccines at the event to promote vaccination,” says Andrea. “Our coalition connected with Angie Wehrkamp, a board member of Families Fighting Flu from Sioux Falls who, unfortunately, lost her daughter to influenza.”

Families Fighting Flu is a national, nonprofit advocacy organization committed to protecting children, families and communities from flu. Together, Immunize SD and Families Fighting Flu established the Fight the Flu 5K as well as a cobranded awareness campaign for child care centers in the area.

“Our work with Families Fighting Flu now includes a text message reminder program for everyone to get their annual flu shot,” says Andrea.

Community advocacy

One of the coalition’s newest partnerships is with Unity Consortium on a project called CommUNITY Sioux Falls, which aims to form a comprehensive immunization neighborhood that boosts community vaccination rates.

“You don’t have to have a medical or nursing degree to join our coalition or to make a difference,” says Andrea. “I would love to grow our group of community and parent advocates. We are always looking for more volunteers to help support our work.”

State policy

As a statewide coalition, Immunize SD is better able to fight for immunization policies that could impact all South Dakotans.

“One of my proudest moments was coordinating opposition and testimony against House Bill 1235 during the 2020 legislative session,” Andrea explains.

House Bill 1235 would have removed the state requirement for certain vaccines to attend school or early childhood education programs. The coalition drafted a statement with signatures from 23 medical organizations and groups in opposition of the bill.

Through multiple testimonies and the joint statement, the bill was eventually defeated.

“This achievement really pushed Sioux Falls Area Immunization Coalition to become Immunize SD. We knew we would have more influence and leverage as a statewide coalition,” says Andrea.

In the last year, more bills have been introduced into legislation that would have hurt statewide vaccinations. Again, the coalition, now under its new name, coordinated opposition.

“I am passionate about building community confidence in vaccine safety,” Andrea says. “We continue to devote our energy to creating a culture across South Dakota that supports vaccination.”