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Walz, Larson: Vaccine doesn't allow us to let our guard down

Experts say it will be several months before the vaccine's impact on the pandemic is known.

Gov. Tim Walz (left) and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson watch a video at the Local Initiatives Support Corp.'s annual luncheon at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. (2019 file / News Tribune)

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expected to approve use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said local officials and the two Duluth-based health care systems are collaborating on a distribution plan as Minnesota prepares to begin administering the drug as early as next week.

"I kind of envision it the same way we've been doing testing, which is at the DECC and people can get it in their clinic and through the hospital testing stations," Larson said. "My guess is we are going to try to be delivering this in a variety of ways that are efficient."

Following the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first people in Minnesota to receive the vaccine will be health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

After that, other groups expected to be prioritized are essential workers, people with medical conditions and people over age 65.

For people who do not fall into any of those categories, it could still be several months before it's their turn in line for a vaccine, said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Minnesota Department of Health's infectious disease epidemiology, prevention and control division, in a briefing Tuesday with the governor and mayors.


"The vaccine will be going out to broader groups, but when it's just open to anyone without prioritization that'll probably be a number of months, probably over the summer," Ehresmann said.

Because of that, both Gov. Tim Walz and Larson emphasized that Minnesotans should not let their guard down since it will still be months before the vaccine has a substantial effect on the course of the virus.


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"I think it's OK tonight to go home and be pretty darn happy and recognize that this is a brand-new phase, and it is the beginning of the end," Walz said, "but we've got work to do."
Although Minnesota has been plateauing in its new COVID-19 cases and deaths, the state is still in a dangerous position, Walz said, citing high hospital capacities and testing positivity rates that are over 20% in some counties.

"This is the worst part of the pandemic yet for our country and certainly for Minnesota. The vaccine will not fix that and it will be months before we start to see the effects of that," he said. "I think a lot of folks think, 'Oh, here it is, everybody is going to get the shot and everything will go back to normal and we’ll be going to basketball and hockey games.' That's probably not where it's going to be for a little while and we just need folks to dig a little deeper."

Larson said that knowing a vaccine is on its way and that there's a plan helps alleviate some of the exhaustion and fear everyone's feeling. Still, there's more work to do.

"Go back to your core reason for being worried about this in the first place," Larson said. "Once you connect to the why, it makes it a little bit easier to go, 'OK. I can't let my guard down yet. I cannot do those things I want to do yet because I’m going for next year.'”

As of Tuesday, Minnesota was expecting to receive 183,400 doses in the first month. The federal government allocates the number of doses each state will receive on a per-capita basis, and it's a number that's often changing and will likely grow, Ehresmann said.


The drugs will be distributed from the manufacturers to the "hub sites" around the state, which in Northeastern Minnesota includes St. Luke's and Essentia Health in Duluth. Those sites will then work with other providers in the area to get the vaccines redistributed to more rural locations.

The CDC is scheduled Friday to make its final recommendation on the Pfizer vaccine. The second vaccine by Moderna is expected to be approved by the FDA on Thursday, Dec. 17.

Both vaccines require a second dose. The second Pfizer vaccine must be administered 21 days later, while the Moderna vaccine requires a second dose after 28 days.

Diving into the science

In another vaccine briefing Wednesday, Mayo Clinic health experts shared what is known about the vaccines, including their 95% effectiveness, meaning 5% of people are not going to be protected by the vaccine.

"What we need to do is create a community of immunity. It's not a perfect vaccine," Dr. Melanie Swift, occupational medicine physician, said of why it's important most get vaccinated. "We can't rely on partial vaccination coverage in order to stop transmission."

While it is possible to test whether someone is in the small group of people not protected by the vaccine, Dr. Abinash Virk, pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said the science is just not there yet.

"In the future, once we have more development of this test, hopefully we can use this to determine if someone has or does not have immunity against COVID-19 from vaccination," Virk said.

Overall, Virk said a main takeaway from what she knows about the vaccines is they are "quite safe." Fatigue, headaches and body aches are the most common side effects from the vaccines, and are most common after the second dose and within 48 hours. Fever can happen in 15%-20% of people, according to trials.


Vaccinated people need to continue wearing masks and physically distancing from other people, Virk said, since transmission will still occur until most of the population is vaccinated.

Swift chimed in to add that's because in the studies "effectiveness" is defined as a person showing no signs of symptomatic disease. In other words, people who were feeling fine were not tested to see if they had asymptomatic COVID-19.

"So we can't rip off our mask just because we've had our vaccines until we know for sure that means we're not getting asymptomatic disease we could spread," Swift said.

It's also unknown how long the vaccine could last. It is possible people may need booster shots in the future.

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