On Wednesday, Red Wing pediatrician Dr. Eric Schnaith became one of the thousands of Minnesota health care workers to get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
It was something of an unexpected present, coming on his 56th birthday.
Sixty miles away in the Twin Cities, his daughter Dr. Abbey Schnaith, who is also a pediatrician, got her dose on the same day.
"We just happened through two different health systems to get the vaccine on the same day," Abbey Schnaith said.
"I think it is the light at the end of a dark tunnel," Eric Schnaith said. "It's got everyone's hopes up and it looks like it should work."
The two vaccines, given emergency approval recently by federal authorities, have generated much interest and excitement, but it will take time before they, and other vaccine candidates in the pipeline, can make a significant dent in the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.
COVID-19 case growth in Minnesota has slowed significantly since November, with 2,170 new infections announced Saturday, bringing the state's total to 406,545.
But the November surge is still being felt with high mortality. Another 57 COVID-19 related deaths were announced Saturday, pushing the pandemic's toll in Minnesota to 5,107. On average, the state has reported 55 new deaths each day over the past seven days.
The Schnaiths will both need to get a second shot of the vaccine in three weeks, and it can take two weeks after that before they develop full immunity.
Across the United States, vaccine supplies are being rationed as manufacturing of the precious drugs is ramping up.
In Minnesota, the father-daughter duo are just two of 298,400 residents that the state Department of Health considers to be in the highest-priority groups — front-line health care workers and nursing home residents.
Behind them are another 202,000 health care workers and residents of assisted-living facilities, group homes and residential treatment centers.
Vaccinations in Minnesota's hard-hit nursing homes will begin Monday in some facilities, a spokeswoman for CVS Health confirmed Thursday. The company is partnering with 599 long-term care facilities in the state to administer the shots.
State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said it could take until the end of January before all 500,000 in the first priority groups get vaccinated.
Hesitation and hope
The pediatricians say they are already getting questions from parents about the vaccine.
"Parents are asking, is it safe for them to get their kids vaccinated and should they get the vaccine," said Abbey Schnaith, who is in the second year of her three-year residency, which involves a rotation at all the children's hospitals in the Twin Cities metro area.
The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for those age 16 and older. Moderna's vaccine is for those 18 and older.
"They are working on the studies and hopefully they will approve it for younger kids as time goes on," said Eric Schnaith, who works at the Mayo Clinic Health System.
Both doctors said they recommend the COVID-19 vaccine without hesitation.
"Right now my response to parents is, you should absolutely get the vaccine," Abbey Schnaith said. "It is a great way to protect yourself and your family."
Resistance or doubts over vaccines is common.
"I have some patients and parents that express some vaccine hesitancy every day that I am in clinic and in the hospital," she said, noting that many parents have not seen the ravages of diseases eradicated by vaccines, such as polio and smallpox.
Although children make up a small percentage of patients hospitalized from COVID-19 complications, they are still at risk.
"I am seeing many previously healthy children come in with COVID infections," Abbey Schnaith said. Additionally, some develop MIS-C, which stands for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. Although rare, it results in serious complications when various organs become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs.
"The risks of flu and COVID or any other disease are so much greater than a little shot," said Eric Schnaith, who has been practicing medicine in Red Wing for 26 years.
The COVID-19 vaccine has also drawn concerns because it was developed so quickly.
In a recent survey by the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation, 71% of those surveyed said they definitely or probably would get a vaccine, up from 63% in September. But 27% said they were still hesitant.
"Many who are hesitant are in wait-and-see mode, and their concerns include worries about side effects and whether the vaccine can cause COVID-19, which may dissipate as people get more information and see the vaccine introduced successfully among people they know," said Drew Altman, chief executive of the foundation.
Both pediatricians said the only side effects they felt was arm soreness, which disappeared within 24 hours.
As the daughter of a pediatrician, Abbey Schnaith was kept up to date on all the recommended childhood vaccinations.
The COVID-19 vaccine "was less painful than other immunizations that I've gotten," she said.
Abbey Schnaith is participating in a federal tracking program called v-safe, a smartphone app used to report any side effects. It also sends a reminder when it is time to get the second dose.
Compared to the run-up to Thanksgiving, fewer Minnesotans were getting tested ahead of the Christmas holiday.
In the week before Thanksgiving, nearly 424,000 test results were reported to the Health Department. By comparison, the week before Christmas saw about 296,000 tests, including 53,000 reported to state officials on Thursday.
COVID-19 numbers announced on Saturday were reports submitted to health officials on Thursday and delayed by the Christmas holiday. The Health Department on Sunday will disclose two days of reports from Friday and Saturday.
The pressure on the state's hospitals from COVID-19 has lessened since Dec. 1, when there were nearly 1,800 coronavirus patients. Hospitals are now caring for about 1,050 patients.
Of those known to be infected, 382,705 were no longer considered to be infectious.
Most people who become infected by the coronavirus experience mild or even no symptoms, although some can develop more serious symptoms weeks or months later.
People with underlying health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, sickle cell disease, dementia and other chronic diseases are at a greater risk for hospitalization.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192