ROCHESTER, Minn. — After months of anticipation, the first doses of an FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of illness from SARS-CoV-2 arrived in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the early morning hours of Monday, Dec. 14.

It was an event health officials believe will signal the beginning of the end for an illness that has claimed 300,000 American lives.

In Minnesota, the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech products arrived in special low-temperature encasing at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Cass Lake Indian Health Services and the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where a shipment of 2,925 doses was greeted by Gov. Tim Walz.

“This is an exciting day for Minnesota,” Walz said in a statement. “The first vaccines are here. They are safe, and they will be ready to go soon. The sun is coming up, Minnesota”

The state expects to receive 46,800 doses by the end of the week, and plan to use the first doses in accordance with CDC guidance to inoculate frontline health care workers. Minnesota Department of Health staff plan to use this week to train providers on vaccine-specific protocols and procedures for administering the shots, with most vaccinations expected to begin next week, Dec. 21.

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Health officials on Monday said the training delay was unavoidable in order to incorporate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance released Sunday regarding who can get the vaccine, adding that the state had already built out the portions of training not related to late-breaking determinations.

"We needed additional details from that vote in order to advise who is contraindicated, whether it can be coadministered with other vaccines, and what evaluations need to happen," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann in a Monday afternoon media call.

Ehresmann said images now circulating of health officials giving the vaccine to the first health care workers are largely shots offered in a ceremonial fashion, and that all states are equally obliged to incorporate this week's training to ensure safe administration. "Providers have to attest they have received this training," Ehresmann said. "We want to do this right and do it safely."

The Pfizer vaccine will be sent directly to hubs chosen by the state department of health. Image courtesy of State of Minnesota.
The Pfizer vaccine will be sent directly to hubs chosen by the state department of health. Image courtesy of State of Minnesota.

Walz noted that, “With these first shipments, we will soon begin vaccinating thousands of health care workers and the most critically at-risk Minnesotans.

“All Minnesotans will have the opportunity to receive the vaccine in time, but until then, we need to stay safe and keep up the fight,” he said.

Sanford Health's headquarters in Fargo has 3,400 COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Monday, with frontline health care workers receiving their first doses the same day.

In South Dakota, the Department of Health reported two systems, Avera Health and Monument Health, had received vaccine shipments Monday, while Sanford Health in South Dakota would receive its shipment Tuesday morning, Dec. 15. All told, the state has been promised 7,800 doses in the initial round of shipments.

Sanford says it expects to receive additional doses next week. It has invested in ultra-cold storage systems to safely store the vaccine at large centers across its system.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of medicine that will change the course of the pandemic,” Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president medical officer, Sanford Health Fargo, said in a statement. “As the largest rural health provider in the country, we have been preparing for months for this very complex effort. Sanford Health teams have been working around-the-clock to plan for and lead vaccination efforts in Fargo and across our region.”

The health system already has 180 couriers who drive a collective 11,500 miles daily to service small rural centers in communities across North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa. The health system has the capacity to store almost 500,000 doses.

“The U.S. has completed a rigorous regulatory and approvals process with unprecedented scrutiny and the data are clear that this vaccine is safe and effective,” Jeremy Cauwels, chief physician at Sanford Health, said in a statement. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we must continue to stay vigilant. Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine for the prevention of serious illness from COVID-19 over the weekend and trucks began to roll out from a Pfizer plant in Michigan on Sunday, Dec. 13.

The vaccine was developed on an extraordinary timeframe, condensing a process that often takes years to nine months without skipping on standard safety review protocols. It did so by using off-the-shelf mRNA platform — technology that had been studied for a decade for its potential uses in cancer immunology — as well as speedy sign-ups of tens of thousands of volunteer study participants, as well as a "rolling review" that enabled the drug maker to simultaneously conduct early and later stages of the trial concomitantly.

Federal financial assistance enabled the drugmaker to mass-produce the vaccine before it was approved, ensuring immediate inventory, and the Trump Administration's Operation Warp Speed focused on the supply chain logistics of quickly shipping a fragile new product requiring dry ice packaging to each state, utilizing a mix of public and private shipping modalities.

The Pfizer vaccine is likely to be joined next week by a similar product from the drug maker Moderna. Both vaccines have shown 90 to 95% efficacy in preventing the onset of mild symptoms of COVID-19, which is believed to act as a stand-in for serious symptoms.

Neither vaccine has been studied for the ability to prevent transmission of the illness, meaning that a person could potentially be vaccinated and still contract the illness and pass it along, but not develop symptoms. For this reason, the use of masks and social distancing is a minimum expectation for the coming months-long rollout of public vaccination.

By the numbers

Also on Monday, Minnesota reported 3,026 new cases of COVID-19, and 18 additional deaths. The state has now recorded 4,462 deaths from the illness, with nearly 900 deaths recorded since the start of December.

With 1,283 Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19, and 319 in an ICU setting, "hospital beds have been on a downward trend," said state commissioner of health Jan Malcolm, "offering an extremely important bit of respite for our health care workers."

While hospitalization is down from the previous high, it remains three times its previous peak in May, according to Malcolm.

With almost 382,000 laboratory confirmed cases, Minnesota expects to see 400,000 total cases before holidays, albeit at a pace slowing from the previous two-week, 100,000-case increase.

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Forum News Service reporters Jeremy Fugleberg in Sioux Falls and Jeff Kiger in Rochester contributed to this report.

  • 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.