MarshfieldClinicICU (copy)

Nurse Deanna North, supervisor of ICU nurses at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire, puts on a personal respirator in November before caring for a COVID-19 patient. The Eau Claire City-County Health Department on Thursday said it will coordinate with the state, local hospitals, health care clinics and pharmacies to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, likely sometime in 2021. 

EAU CLAIRE — With encouraging news about two COVID-19 vaccine candidates this week, local health care and frontline workers will be the first offered the vaccine, health officials said Thursday.

While the two vaccine candidates’ data is promising, a vaccine — or several — will be rolled out gradually in western Wisconsin due to strict storage and transportation requirements and availability, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

“We know that while a vaccine is on the near horizon and we’re excited, it will take many, many months to get everyone in our community vaccinated fully,” Giese said at a Thursday news briefing. “ … Once that supply is available, we’ll be working with the state to quickly get it out.”

Two U.S. pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, announced this week that clinical trials indicated their COVID-19 vaccines are around 95% effective.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE said their vaccine protected people of all ages and ethnicities, with no significant safety problems so far in a trial that includes almost 44,000 participants.

Though the Health Department can’t pin an exact date for when the first vaccines may arrive in Eau Claire County, “we are also hearing that the likely vaccine will start coming as soon as sometime in December for small numbers of health care workers across the U.S.,” Giese said. “We’re hoping after the start of the new year we’ll be hearing about the vaccine supply.”

Vaccine distribution will be coordinated at the state level, but the Eau Claire City-County Health Department will also likely partner with pharmacies and health care clinics to get the vaccine out to the public when it’s more broadly available, Giese added.

“We’re anticipating vaccination supply and support going directly to places like long-term care facilities and other places where we can quickly get the vaccine out,” Giese said.

The vaccines must be transported and stored in extremely cold temperatures, leading U.S. hospitals to buy special ultra-cold freezers to store the vaccines.

“We are working on having access to those resources locally as well,” Giese said. “There are no set plans yet for how that vaccine will come in and be distributed … and we also anticipate the vaccine won’t all arrive at once.”

A third vaccine contender, from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, is expected to release trial results in coming days.

The Pfizer-BioNTech data shows 170 trial participants contracted Covid-19 overall. Eight participants who got the vaccine fell ill, while 162 cases were seen among those who got the placebo. The shot helped to prevent severe disease, according to the analysis, with nine of 10 severe cases in the trial occurring in the placebo group.

The vaccine’s efficacy in people older than 65 was more than 94%, the companies said.

Most people who received the shot tolerated it well. Severe fatigue was seen in 3.7% of volunteers after the second dose in the two-shot regimen, but that was the only severe side effect that occurred in more than 2% of people, according to the analysis.

On Monday, Moderna released its own promising results and said it expects to be able to apply for emergency authorization in the U.S. within weeks.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to seek U.S. emergency authorization “within days,” according to the release.

Both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are based on messenger RNA, a new type of vaccine technology that is able to be deployed very quickly. It essentially transforms the body’s cells into tiny vaccine making machines. The vaccines instruct cells to make copies of the coronavirus spike protein, stimulating the production of protective antibodies.

COVID-19 in Eau Claire County

Eau Claire County has recorded the highest seven-day COVID-19 case count in the last week than at any other point during the pandemic.

About 1,300 county residents were newly diagnosed just in the last week.

In comparison, it took almost six months for the first 1,000 cases to be reported in the county.

The county also broke its single-day case record this week, once Monday and appearing to again on Wednesday. Its current record appears to be 351 new cases in a day — though that Wednesday case count was “partly related to a data system download issue with one of our health care systems that happened across the state,” Giese said. “A number of positive test results were imported in that single day … that were positives, but from previous days.”

In total, the county is nearing 7,000 cases of the virus. About 4,750 county residents have recovered after their diagnosis, according to county data.

Forty-eight county residents have died of COVID-19, and 14 of those deaths happened in the last week. Most have been people older than 65 with “some level” of underlying health conditions, Giese said.

About 3% of residents who have contracted the virus, or 203 people, have ever been hospitalized — another 30 county residents hospitalized with the virus in the last week.

Eighteen cases have been found in people associated with the Eau Claire County Jail, and two of those people still have active cases of COVID-19.

County metrics tracking the virus showed little significant change this week, though health officials cautioned the data overwhelmingly indicates the virus is raging in the Chippewa Valley:

In northwestern Wisconsin in the last two weeks, 89% of inpatient hospital beds are in use, up from 81% last week. In the same region, 90% of ICU beds are full, compared to 93% last week.

The county’s test-positivity rate, or the seven-day average percentage of all tests that come back positive, is at 18.9%; last week it was at 19.7%. It’s still higher than the state average, which is sitting at 16%, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The percentage of community spread cases, or the portion of people who test positive who don’t know where they contracted the virus, is the same this week: 32% over the last 14 days.

Contact tracers were able to contact only 46% of new cases within 24 hours this week, down from 52% last week.

Wisconsin added just over 6,600 new cases of COVID-19, as well as 83 deaths, on Thursday.

On Thursday, Giese pleaded with the community to take the recent case surge, hospitalizations and deaths seriously and not to gather in person with people outside their household.

“We need to pay attention to that, as a critical part of what is going on with COVID-19 in our communities,” Giese said. “We don’t see viruses kill people like this ever. We hear often that this is just like the flu, this is just like a virus ... this is a virus that is putting people in the hospital and resulting in long-term health impacts for individuals.”

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.