At Mayo, mixed emotions as front-line workers get first COVID vaccines; hospital waits for next delivery

Amid cheers and celebration, the size and speed of Mayo’s next vaccine allocation remains in flux

A man holds his sleeve up as a woman injects him with vaccine.
Dr. Casey Clements is given on of the first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on Friday. Clements was the doctor who discovered the first known case of COVID-19 in Rochester.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Even though she was wearing a mask, the joy and excitement in Abigail Carter's eyes was clear, when she was given her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Carter was among the doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who helped diagnose and take care of some of Olmsted County’s first COVID-19 patients back in March. 

Nearly 10 months later, she’s relishing this hopeful moment. 

"This is such a big day, and this is a big step,” she said. “It's the light at the end of the tunnel for us. I am so excited."

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6 people pull up their sleeves to show bandages.
The first six employees of Mayo Clinic to receive Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine show off their bandages after getting the shot on Friday. Five of the six worked on the first suspected case of COVID-19, and Dr. Casey Clements discovered the first known case in Rochester, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the next few days, Mayo Clinic has plans to vaccinate more than 2,000 front-line workers whose jobs put them at the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, and thousands more in coming weeks as more vaccine shipments arrive in the state. 

But even as Carter and her colleagues rejoiced the start of the vaccination process, the size of Mayo's incoming supply of doses remained in flux, due to production delays on the national level and allocation complexities on the state level — a situation that underscores the predominant themes of the year: Glimmers of hope mixed with an uneasy uncertainty.

Dr. Casey Clements is an emergency room physician who diagnosed the first case of COVID-19 in southeastern Minnesota’s Olmsted County in early March. He was also among the group of health care professionals who received their first dose Friday.

"I slept for three hours last night because I was so excited about getting this,” he said. 

At the start of the year, he said, so much about the disease was unknown: How it spread, how to identify it, how to treat patients who had it. 

And even in March with that first positive diagnosis, Clements said the eventual scope of the pandemic didn't sink in right away. 

“I had no idea what we would be dealing with for nine straight months after that,” he said. “To have a vaccine less than a year after that first diagnosis is a marvel of science, that we came so far so quickly."

ICU nurse Meera Patel got her first shot Friday, too. 

A woman in a purple mask pulls up her sleeve to show a bandage.
Nurse Meera Patel shows off her bandage over where she received one of the first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

She said that so many of the trappings of COVID-19 care has become second nature in her work these last few months: donning and doffing personal protective equipment, moving patients to the prone position to help them as they struggle to breathe.

But she’s said she doesn’t think she’ll ever get over the emotional toll of what she’s seen, while caring for COVID-19’s victims. Family can't be in the ICU with their loved ones, so she's also had to play the role of mother, daughter or sister to many sick and dying patients.

"Having to hold their hands when they die, having to have Zoom calls in order for family to even see them, interact with them — it's been really hard,” she said. 

Earlier Friday, state officials announced that the volume of Minnesota's second allocation of the Pfizer vaccine had been slashed nearly in half — the result of manufacturing fluctuations, according to a spokesperson from the Minnesota Department of Health. 

State officials say that means this first stage of vaccinating front-line workers could take longer than expected. 

A woman in a mask.
Dr. Amy Williams speaks during an interview about vaccine distribution at Mayo Clinic on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

At Mayo, Dr. Amy Williams helps lead the hospital's response to the pandemic.

She said this week, Mayo received more than 2,000 doses, but remains unsure of how many more they will receive in coming weeks, creating a potential delay in getting staff vaccinated. 

The amount of vaccine Mayo will get with each distribution is dependent on the domino effect of federal to state allocations, which are based on census data, not concentration of health care workers.

By Mayo's estimate, it needs to inoculate 11,000 front-line workers in Rochester alone.

And because of the havoc COVID-19 can wreak on a patient's body, Williams said, Mayo's list of front-line workers includes providers outside the ICU and the ER.

"Somebody is in the ICU, with COVID-19, which affects so many organ systems,” she said. “So they're on the ventilator. Now their kidneys fail, so they need a nephrologist to come see them. Now they have heart failure, so they need a cardiologist to come see them." 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that no hospital in the state is getting enough vaccine right now. 

"The supply is so limited that no one is getting enough as much as they want to vaccinate their workers as quickly as they want,” she said. 

It's a problem, Malcolm said, the entire state shares. 

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.