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Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire launched its COVID-19 vaccination program Thursday by giving initial doses to five staff members. It marks the beginning of a historic campaign to vaccinate frontline workers in the Chippewa Valley, and eventually the general public next year.

EAU CLAIRE — Although the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine just arrived in Eau Claire this week, public health agencies and hospitals in the Chippewa Valley have long since begun laying groundwork for a herculean effort to vaccinate potentially thousands of people next year.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department isn’t itself vaccinating the Chippewa Valley’s health care workers. That’s the realm of local hospitals right now, said Lieske Giese, Health Department director, at a Thursday press conference.

But the Health Department will take some of the reins when it comes to the inevitable, bigger push to offer COVID-19 shots to the general public.

Chippewa Valley and state health officials answered questions this week about how the coronavirus vaccine push will look locally in 2020 and 2021.

What role will the Eau Claire City-County Health Department play in getting the COVID-19 vaccine out?

For years, the Health Department has run full-scale vaccination exercises, practicing how it would deploy vaccines on a large scale.

Traditionally, the department uses annual flu shot clinics to test-drive different approaches, Giese said.

Last week, the Health Department vaccinated nearly 200 people against the flu in one day at North High School in a similar exercise. Its test approach: a free, walk-through flu shot site for both kids and adults.

“It was a really good opportunity to test-run some of our strategies to get people through a vaccination environment,” Giese said last week. “Our goal is to make the vaccine for COVID, when it’s available in a widespread way, easy to get.”

Giese said the Health Department expects to set up similar mass vaccination events, hopefully, this spring, for the coronavirus vaccine.

In broader planning, the department is also coordinating vaccinators — the agencies or groups approved by the state to administer the vaccine — though it doesn’t have the authority to designate them, Giese said.

The Health Department also can’t prioritize who gets the vaccine first, Giese said. That falls on the federal government and the state.

The department is also reaching out to unaffiliated health care workers and agencies for vaccination plans, Giese said. Those unaffiliated workers could include dentists, EMS workers, school nurses and home care agencies.

Who in the Chippewa Valley will get the vaccine first? Who will be next?

The first group of workers to get the vaccine, dubbed the 1A group, are health care workers who are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, Giese said.

Getting that broad group vaccinated is expected to take weeks, said Andrea Palm, Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee. Wisconsin has over 400,000 health care workers, she told reporters in a press conference Thursday.

The next tier, the 1B group, includes essential workers. They will be next in line for the vaccine “probably a little bit later in January and early February,” Giese said.

It will take “several months” before the vaccine is available to the general public, said Dr. Andrew Badley, an infectious disease physician researcher and chair of Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Task Force.

“The last estimate I’ve heard is March or April,” Badley said this week on a phone call with reporters. “That can vary … if there are issues with the supply chain … that timeline may be moved up or slowed down.”

How many doses has Wisconsin received so far? How many health care workers have been given shots?

The state has received 49,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

It’s expecting another allocation next week. Palm said it’s possible the second shipment will be fewer than that 49,725 initial shipment.

As of Wednesday, 1,010 doses had been given to health care workers, Palm said. The Pfizer vaccine is a two-dose regimen, meaning those same workers will have to return in several weeks for a second shot.

How often will Wisconsin receive shipments of the vaccines?

Wisconsin’s eight regional vaccine hubs are expected to receive doses weekly, Palm said.

The state expects the federal government to inform them weekly how many vaccines are expected to be shipped in the following week, she added.

When might Wisconsin receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine?

The Moderna vaccine, which could get FDA approval as soon as this week, “should be available for staff and residents of long-term care facilities” in Wisconsin starting Dec. 28, Palm said.

The state could receive up to 101,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week, Palm said.

Are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines different? Is one considered more effective for certain groups of people?

“In my view and in the opinion of multiple others I’ve spoken with … they are functionally indistinguishable,” Badley said.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on a new approach called messenger RNA technology, and both require two doses. In large-scale human studies, both vaccines have been shown to have around 95% effectiveness.

“I think there will be pragmatic reasons for sending one vaccine to a (certain) area over another,” Badley said this week.

The Pfizer vaccine must be shipped and stored at extremely cold temperatures, while the Moderna vaccine has a longer shelf life.

“ … It’s possible, therefore, that other vaccines without that (cold storage) restriction could go to places that don’t have that cold chain requirement,” Badley added.

Are people safe to attend large gatherings and get rid of masks once they’re vaccinated?

Local, state and national health officials have repeatedly said people must keep wearing masks and avoid big gatherings, even after they’re vaccinated.

“We are not out of the woods quite yet,” said Gov. Tony Evers on a Thursday phone call with reporters.

While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have drastically reduced the number of people who got symptomatic COVID-19 in their respective studies, they aren’t proven to reduce actual new cases of the virus, Badley said.

“ … Even if you have a vaccine, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become infected and therefore that you can’t transmit the virus,” Badley said this week.

Local cases, hospitalizations trending down

Eau Claire County reported an average of 46 new cases per day this week — down again from last week, when the average was 52 new cases per day. (It’s far less than the county’s November peak, when 207 new cases per day was the average.)

A post-Thanksgiving spike in cases hasn’t materialized in Eau Claire County yet. Deaths, new cases and hospitalizations still are trending downward, though health officials caution that numbers are still much higher than they’d like.

Another six county residents were hospitalized last week, down from 11 the week before. Two more county residents died of COVID-19 this week, compared to six the week before.

“ … Our daily numbers are still too high,” Palm said of the state’s numbers this week. “We still have staff shortages at hospitals, we still have hospitals that are strained. While we’re going in the right direction, we still have work to do.”

Eau Claire County’s testing numbers are trending even further down this week. The county did about 1,100 tests in the last seven days. In the week before, it did 1,300; in mid-November, the county posted 3,800 tests per week.

“We really strongly encourage anybody that has any symptoms, or that has been in close contact with an individual who’s COVID positive, be tested,” Giese said.

The county’s test-positivity rate — or the percentage of all tests that come back positive — is about 29%, the same as last week. At the county’s November peak, the test-positivity rate was 38%. (That figure doesn’t include multiple tests per person, such as a health care worker who might be tested multiple times per week or month.)

Giese urged the community not to gather outside their homes at Christmas, acknowledging that it’s tough for people to stay home during winter holidays but noting that a vaccine’s arrival doesn’t mean the virus is beaten.

“It seems to have worked with Thanksgiving,” Giese said. “We didn’t have big spikes in case numbers. That could have happened if people celebrated in normal ways at Thanksgiving. We’re hoping that happens again.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.