EAU CLAIRE — Call it a dose of hope.
After a countdown of “3-2-1,” five health care workers at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire received COVID-19 vaccinations Thursday morning, launching the first wave of protection in the Chippewa Valley against a pandemic that has killed 130 people in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties and more than 310,000 nationwide.
“It’s a historic day. I’m honored to be here,” registered nurse Madelyn Neumann said after becoming one of the first to be inoculated in Eau Claire. “Not only did I want to protect the patients I serve and care for on the medical surgical unit, I also want to get it so I protect my husband, who is immunocompromised.”
The ceremonial injections, which marked the beginning of a massive vaccination effort in the Chippewa Valley and the nation, were administered simultaneously in the downtown hospital’s pulmonology department.
The Mayo facility in Eau Claire received its first doses of the vaccine Tuesday from the state Department of Health Services. The vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, was granted emergency use authorization last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Health care workers around the country rolled up their sleeves Monday for the nation’s first COVID-19 shots. Front-line workers also will be the first to receive the vaccine at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
Dr. Janki Patel, chair of infectious diseases at Mayo in Eau Claire, said she had no qualms about being one of the first people to receive a vaccine that was developed rapidly and just received emergency use authorization.
“I was really excited. It is a very safe and effective vaccine. I was very happy to lead by example,” Patel said. “This is a great step toward hopefully bringing an end to the year that has been so difficult for so many in the community who have been affected by this.”
Another one of the first local vaccine recipients, Dr. Richard Helmers, a pulmonologist and regional vice president of the health system, said the beginning of vaccinations represents an important milestone for the Chippewa Valley.
“The arrival of a vaccine brings hope,” Helmers said. “While this pandemic is not over, we can begin to see our way toward the end as more vaccine becomes available and more people become immunized.”
Across town, about 20 individuals received the COVID-19 vaccine at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital on Thursday afternoon, generating smiles beneath the masks of appreciative health care workers.
“Today is a historic day,” said Ken Johnson, chief medical officer for Prevea Health and an emergency department physician at Sacred Heart. “We’re actually at a point where we can start doing something to prevent the spread of this virus.”
Seeing colleagues receive the protective shots — after months of struggling to treat the virus in local hospitals on the brink of being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients — was emotional for staff members.
“Finally they have something that can help them feel protected while they care for others,” Johnson said, adding that on a personal level he is excited about the vaccine’s potential to eventually allow him to travel and go to restaurants again.
Michelle Willcutt, an intensive care unit nurse at Sacred Heart, was the hospital’s first vaccine recipient and proudly wore a sticker on her scrubs stating “I was vaccinated-COVID.”
The registered nurse who delivered that dose, Sacred Heart infection prevention manager Sue Galoff, said she was “honored and humbled” to be part of the big moment.
Dealing with a large volume of extremely sick COVID-19 patients for months has been extremely difficult on health care workers, so the first vaccinations offered a much-needed sign of hope, Willcutt said.
“What a wonderful way for it to end,” Willcutt said of the vaccine’s projected impact on the pandemic and “this crazy year.”
Echoing the recipients’ enthusiasm, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese called it “momentous” that vaccine is available in the Chippewa Valley and said delivering those doses will be good for local schools and businesses.
“This really is a new next step in responding to COVID-19 in our community and across the state,” Giese said. “We’ve not in our lifetimes ever had a vaccine rolled out this quickly, and this needs to get out this quickly in order to protect our population.”
After Thursday’s initial five vaccinations at Mayo Clinic Health System, officials planned to administer 25 doses Friday and then significantly ramp up the number into next week. Future allocations and the timing of vaccine deliveries is determined by the state.
The pace of vaccinations is influenced by the storage requirements, as the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at ultra-cold levels — minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit — and is required to be warmed before injection. Since warmed doses can’t be cooled back down, a tightly controlled vaccination schedule is required, said Jason Craig, Mayo’s regional chair of administration.
“One of our highest priorities is to ensure the limited vaccine available is used to its fullest and that no doses are wasted,” Craig said. “By having these processes well planned and established, we can go slow at first, in order to go fast later.”
To be fully effective, the Pfizer vaccine is given in two doses three weeks apart.
Mayo is following guidance provided by federal and state authorities to prioritize groups for vaccinations, starting with hospital workers, emergency responders and long-term care staff. The initial priority will be to vaccinate Mayo health care personnel who are at high occupational risk for exposure to the virus and those working in roles deemed essential to the COVID-19 response.
As supplies increase in 2021, the program will expand to include more health care personnel and broader patient populations. Local Mayo officials said they are hopeful that increases in vaccination supplies will occur soon, especially considering that the FDA appears to be on the cusp of green lighting a different coronavirus vaccine produced by Moderna.
“The vaccine is a key tool in ending this pandemic, and I am happy to be able to receive it, not only to protect myself, but to protect my patients, my co-workers, my family and my community,” Helmers said. “We encourage everyone to educate themselves on the safety and efficacy that clinical trials have demonstrated and consider accepting the vaccine.”
State health officials have said Wisconsin could receive 100,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine as early as next week. That’s twice what the state received in its initial shipments this week from Pfizer.
Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire officials indicated they expected their first doses to arrive early Friday morning, with a nurse from the COVID-19 unit scheduled to be the first recipient.
The local shots are part of the launch of what is expected to be the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history — one that is widely hoped to spell the end of the pandemic that has affected the lives of people around the world.
“It has been a trying year for everybody, an emotional year for all of us,” Patel said. “This is one step toward us hopefully being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In the meantime, however, Patel and other local health officials urged community members to continue to be cautious and to follow safety protocols.
“Hopefully by everybody obtaining their vaccine, social distancing and still wearing their masks, we can get to a point where our community spread is so low that then we are able to pull back on some of these interventions,” Patel said. “But until that happens, everyone still has to remain diligent.”