ROCHESTER, Minn. — Health officials used a Tuesday, Dec. 1, press call to begin to make the case in the public eye for a positive attitude about the approaching arrival of vaccines.

"We remain in a critical stage of the pandemic," said state Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. "We are still in for some challenging weeks in terms of hospital capacity, and we want to see the effects of the recent holiday gathering weekend. ... We know there are challenges ahead, but also that they are temporary."

"We all want this to be over," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease. "People sometimes ask what is the end game for COVID-19. The answer is that the end game to this is a vaccine."

Ehresmann said, "The fact that we are talking about a vaccine less than a year from when the virus was identified is truly amazing."

She cautioned that while the rushed arrival may lead some to question whether corners were cut, a host of special factors sped up the vaccine development timetable, factors that did not compromise the same regulatory oversight asked of any vaccine.

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Specifically:

- Manufacturers already had developed the mRNA biotechnology utilized in vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, a process that had been in the works for a decade.

- Manufacturers began the three phases of the vaccine trials simultaneously rather than consecutively. Phase I — the study of safety in small numbers of healthy volunteers — was begun simultaneously to small effectiveness trials known as Phase II, while recruiting was underway for large-scale, placebo-controlled Phase III effectiveness research.

- Manufacturers began mass-producing the vaccines prior to approval, in the understanding that they would throw the product away if the drugs proved themselves to be dangerous or ineffective. They were able to do this because the federal government had agreed to fund the production process, effectively betting on the trials to work out.

"I can say with confidence the way we have been efficient will have not compromised safety," Ehresmann said.

Currently, the Pfizer and Moderna study data is under review at the FDA. Ehresmann said the review committee will meet on Dec. 10 to vote on the Pfizer vaccine, and one week after that to vote on the Moderna vaccine.

The public has yet to see data showing critical details about the effectiveness of the drugs in different contexts, only press release results showing 90 to 94% effectiveness, numbers essentially taken on faith.

While early release of preliminary data is often upsetting to the scientific community, news of an effective vaccine can have a major effect on stock prices, and this moves companies to release the information in an effort to mitigate any risk of insider trading due to leaks.

Early shipments of vaccine will be delivered to states according to federal policy, and states will initiate dosage in three phases, the first for health care workers in contact with COVID-19 patients, the second for high-risk persons, and the third phase to the general public. "That will be a wonderful time," Ehresmann says.

It will also surely be months and months away, with estimates for late spring or early summer.

In other news on Tuesday, Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean for medical practice, Mayo Clinic, disclosed that Rochester is recording a case positivity rate one-half that of the Mayo Clinic Health System (10% compared to 20%), and that both are higher than wished (which is "less than 5%.")

Statewide, the seven-day case positivity rate is now to 12% as of late November, down from 14.4% one week prior, and 16.4% two weeks prior.

Williams addressed the issue of staff absences, a detail that made a splash nationally when first reported here last week, but which she says is reflective of staff absences at major health systems from across the country.

Williams said Mayo has seen a continued decrease in staff absences because of COVID-19 and is now at 2.2% of all of its 55,000 workers in the Midwest. She stressed that "we are able to staff our facilities," and that "it is still safe to seek medical care ... so please don't wait until you are really sick."

In the Midwest, Mayo Clinic has 300 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including 105 in Rochester, 31 of those in an ICU setting. The clinic has discharged 2,296 COVID-19 patients so far.

Statewide, Minnesota reported an additional 3,570 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, Dec. 1. More than 2,000, or 60%, of the state's new cases were in Greater Minnesota, which continues to be the primary source of spread.

Clearwater, Cottonwood, Kandiyohi, McLeod, Morrison, Murray, Polk, Roseau and Stearns counties all have more than 125 cases per 10,000 residents for the most recent week recorded in mid-November, a category reserved for the greatest degree of spread.

The new cases on Tuesday were in 86 of the state's 87 counties, including:

  • 64 cases in Crow Wing County;
  • 87 cases in Wright County;
  • 93 cases in Olmsted County;
  • 98 cases in St. Louis County, and
  • 152 cases in Stearns County.

There were 22 deaths recorded Tuesday, also predominantly in outstate Minnesota (12), with the youngest to die a person in their 50s from Sherburne County. The number of deceased on Tuesday who were residents of long-term care was 17. The total number of deaths from COVID-19 in the state is now 3,615.

The state recorded another 22,000 tests on Tuesday, putting the total number of residents having been tested at 2,539,000.

Hospitals continue to be stretched. The state Health Department has begun posting the number of staffed ICU beds available by region, and the data is eye-opening.

There are just five staffed ICU beds still available for all of the south-central portion of the state, six for west-central Minnesota, seven for the northwest corner of the state, seven as well for the southwest corner of the state, and 13 staffed ICU beds for all of northeast Minnesota, a region that includes Duluth (population 85,000).

It is unclear how the Mayo Clinic ICU capacity fits in these figures. Mayo has added 12-13 COVID-19 ICU beds already, but has numerous options for converting other ICU facilities to COVID-19 usage. Staffing remains the primary consideration in developing ICU beds.

Statewide, with nearly 400 Minnesotans in the ICU for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, there are just 100 staffed ICU beds still available to serve patients with the illness.

State health officials nervously await an expected surge of cases in another 10 days from residents who defied health orders for Thanksgiving. While it was down 60% from last year, Sunday was the biggest travel day of the year so far for air travel.

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  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
  • COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.