Two large medical providers expanded eligibility criteria Thursday for vaccination against COVID-19 in Minnesota, which has reported 6,521 deaths and 487,374 diagnosed infections with the novel corona­virus that causes the infectious disease.

The totals include 14 more deaths and 949 infections reported Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health.

M Health Fairview announced that it was offering shots to patients 65 and older, an expansion from its prior cutoff of 70 or older. St. Cloud-based CentraCare also announced that patients 65 and older were eligible and unveiled a new online registration option.

"Over the last week, we are pleased to see our vaccine supply increase and we are now able to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to anyone in those first priority groups, including those aged 65+, who want to receive it," said Dr. George Morris, CentraCare's COVID-19 incident response commander, in a statement.

At least 948,127 people in Minnesota have received a first shot of Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and 500,188 of them have completed the two-dose series.

Minnesota providers on Thursday also reported receiving their first shipments of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine against COVID-19.

Gov. Tim Walz last week unveiled a vaccine timetable for Minnesota that gradually expanded eligibility to nonelderly adults with chronic health problems and front-line essential workers — before getting to the rest of the general public by summer. That timetable could be accelerated now — with the original scheduling not factoring in the availability of a third vaccine.

The state for now is prioritizing limited quantities of vaccine mostly for health care workers, long-term care residents, educators and people 65 and older.

Some medical providers started by limiting vaccination to older age groups though.

Mayo Clinic started with its patients 80 and older but dropped the age criterion to 70 late last month and will drop it again to 65 for appointments next week.

Risk of severe COVID-19 increases with age. COVID-19 deaths have been reported in 1.5% of Minnesota's 48,396 known cases involving people in their 60s. The death rate increases to 27% of the 5,891 cases involving people in their 90s.

All 14 deaths reported Thursday involved people 60 or older. Seven involved residents of long-term care facilities — with some residents having yet to be vaccinated despite clinics taking place in all nursing homes in Minnesota.

M Health Fairview in its expansion encouraged people to check their MyChart accounts at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays when new appointments are added.

The Allina, HealthPartners and North Memorial systems also are offering vaccine to patients 65 and older but via random selection and e-mailed invitations.

Medical providers are only one source of COVID-19 vaccination, which also is available through a federal contract with chain pharmacies Hy-Vee, Thrifty White and Walgreens.

The state is operating vaccination sites in Minneapolis, Duluth, Rochester, Bloomington and St. Paul — and is offering appointments via random selection of seniors who have registered at

A vaccine clinic offering the 13,400 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine also is taking place this week at the Vikings training facility in Eagan.

Signs of pandemic activity continued to improve in Minnesota, where the positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing dropped to 3.5% — down from a peak of 15.6% on Nov. 10.

However, updated county figures showed continuing concern over hot spots.

Pennington County's rate of 131 infections per 10,000 people in the 14-day period ending Feb. 20 more than doubled the rate of any other county in the state. Health officials said the increase in Thief River Falls and surrounding areas was due to multiple viral exposures at workplaces, restaurants, sporting activities and other events rather than any one outbreak.

State officials also remain concerned about the emergence of more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Genomic sequencing has now identified 112 cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota involving a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744