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Chippewa Valley health care workers start getting COVID-19 vaccine
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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.”

Still to recall, to praise

About 10 years ago, I was seated in a well-lighted classroom at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop taking a course on the poetry of James Merrill. I was one of a handful of fiction writers in the room. Mostly, poets took classes on poets and fiction writers took classes on fiction writers. Cross pollination across genre was not much of a thing. After all, at the end of every school year, the poets and fiction writers would engage in a no-holds-barred softball game, the intensity and ferocity of which might rival a World Series game seven. But the instructor for the Merrill course was one of my literary heroes, a man named James Galvin, who wrote a small masterpiece entitled “The Meadow” (book recommendation #1) that I read while camped beside a glacial river up in British Colombia, circa 2003. If Galvin had offered a course on corn flakes or yoyos, I would have been excited to have the opportunity to learn from him.

But I knew nothing about James Merrill. And for the most part, I can’t say that I connected with a lot of his poetry. But the wonderful thing about poetry is that you don’t have to connect to every single poem in a collection. Poems are a little like bullets: Sometimes, it just takes one.

This brings me to my Christmas present to you, which is actually an assignment, made much easier by our collective and relatively easy access to the internet. Your assignment is this: Go find Merrill’s poem, “Christmas Tree” (Try: “Selected Poems.” Book recommendation #2).

Extra credit will be awarded to those of you who bypass the Internet and buy his work from an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or borrow a copy from a library (if either is open). Further extra credit will be awarded to anyone who presents his work to a loved one this Christmas, because, after all, I don’t think there is any better present than poetry.

Most of you will have found “Christmas Tree” online. Great. Print a copy of the poem and take it to your own Christmas tree. Pull up a comfortable chair. If there is a loved one in your family nearby, ask them to join you. This is best accomplished at night, when your tree is softly aglow, festooned with years of ornaments, tinsel and other decorations. Consider the time you spent harvesting this tree and making it beautiful. Consider your home, your family, this year you have survived. Consider the over a quarter of a million souls who perished as a result of COVID-19. Consider the millions of Americans newly out of work. Consider the exhausted doctors and nurses and teachers. Just, consider.

I would like you to read through the poem at least three times, silently. I would like you to imagine that each of Merrill’s words was like a footprint in a snowy field, and you are retracing his steps. Know that there is a rhythm in how we walk, in how we leave behind something as innocuous as a footprint.

Now I want you to read the poem aloud. You can read the poem to yourself, of course, quietly. Or you can read the poem to your family or friends. You can read the poem to the tree — what a gesture.

I have a writing friend, Dean Kuipers, who wrote a fantastic memoir entitled “The Deer Camp” (book recommendation #3 which, incidentally, would make a terrific Christmas present) who asked a mutual friend of ours, “Have you thanked a tree today for allowing you to breathe?”

That question, like the Merrill poem, has the ability to change your perspective forever, if you allow it to. You are of course free to discard the poem, just as we dispose of our Christmas trees. You are free to sneer at this assignment, to ball up the poem and toss it into the garbage can and forget it, and this assignment, and move on — it cost you nothing. But every time I read Merrill’s poem, I think about this season, and the sacrifices we make for our families. I think about the generations that have preceded us, the traditions they wrought, the light they carried within them through periods of history so much more challenging than even this time. I think about the memories, yes, the spirits of people I have lost. And how so many of these sensations seem to coalesce and crystallize around Christmas.

Ten years ago, Galvin read “Christmas Tree” out loud to that classroom of poets, and I’m not sure that many of them would have admitted the poem affected them. But the poem not only touched me, it crushed me. And I remember a young woman who sat beside me. I think her name was Amanda. She reached across me, and with a pencil, drew a little asterisk-star on top of Merrill’s words. Even though I rarely if ever mark up the books I own, and even though I didn’t stay in touch with Amanda, I like seeing her star on that hackneyed, dog-eared page. I like the idea of decorating a poem as much as I like the notion of decorating a tree. Of being conscious of celebrating a tree, of making a tree a touchstone within my house, a place of light and laughter and congregation. I like the idea of being thankful to be breathing, to be alive.

From labs to front-line workers: Chippewa Valley experts break down vaccine plans
  • Updated

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.”