More than 1,000 health care workers were vaccinated against COVID-19 this week in Minnesota, but the good news was offset by a 45% drop in the expected supply of vaccine to the state next week.
Minnesota received 46,800 doses of the new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as planned this week, but learned that it would be receiving only 33,150 doses next week compared with the 58,000 it had anticipated.
Reduced deliveries upset state health officials across the country, because it will delay the use of vaccine against a pandemic wave that surged in the Midwest this fall and is radiating across the country.
Minnesota has reported 391,889 diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as well as 4,723 deaths, including 65 deaths reported on Friday.
Minnesota health officials said they had been braced for a lower-than-expected shipment and reminded people to continue to practice social distancing and mask-wearing because broad communitywide access to the vaccine won't happen until late winter or early spring 2021.
"What's needed at this stage is a mix of hope and patience and this week's vaccine news items show this very clearly," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, noting that federal safety approval of a second Moderna vaccine was imminent.
Minnesota leaders were so unconvinced by estimates of the second-week supply from Pfizer that they didn't include it earlier this week when they projected 183,000 doses of two different types of COVID-19 vaccines by year's end.
Now state officials expect 174,350 vaccine doses — 79,950 from Pfizer and 94,400 from Moderna — in total by the end of next week, and they project a total of 216,000 doses by year's end.
The response to the reduced second-week shipment was harsher in other states. Gov. Tony Evers in Wisconsin called it "unacceptable. Wisconsin citizens deserve the vaccine the federal government promised."
Gov. Tim Walz issued no statement regarding vaccine numbers in Minnesota.
"The vaccine is here but this isn't over," he said in a social media message. "Wear a mask, avoid gatherings, and get tested for COVID."
Walz earlier this week issued an emergency order that took effect at midnight Saturday to contain the spread of COVID-19. The order extended an existing four-week closure of indoor bars and restaurants but reopened fitness clubs at limited capacities and allowed amateur sports practices to resume next month.
The move angered leaders of the bar and restaurant industry, who said that infection numbers had already started to decline in mid-November before Walz had issued the first shutdown. Ben Wogsland of Hospitality Minnesota said it is clear that large group gatherings can spread COVID-19, but there is unconvincing evidence that restaurants and bars are more to blame than other settings.
The spokesman said his organization disagreed with the decision by some taverns to defy the order and remain open, but that he empathized with owners whose businesses are supported by multiple mortgages and are near financial ruin.
"I've had grown men crying on the phone," he said. "The devastation and desperation is real."
While the pandemic is worsening in much of the U.S., numbers have continued to improve in Minnesota. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have declined 39% since Nov. 29, and the positivity rate of diagnostic tests dropped below the high-risk threshold of 10% for the first time since Oct. 27, according to the state's pandemic response dashboard.
The pattern of the pandemic after 10 months in the U.S. suggests that death numbers should start to decline in Minnesota soon, following a decline in infections that started in mid-November and a decline in hospitalizations that started at the beginning of December.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the infection rate remains well above the high-risk threshold, and that restrictions are still needed to maintain the progress and prevent increasing spread of COVID-19. The state has reported 448 outbreaks involving bars and restaurants that collectively involved 6,684 infections. Malcolm said those are only the primary infections that occurred at the establishments and not the secondary infections that occur at exponential rates when people take the virus back to their homes and workplaces.
"That's the context in which we think about how safe is it to open up environments that we just plain know are riskier," Malcolm said.
Minnesota's limited initial vaccine supply is being earmarked for health care workers who are at greater risk of viral infection and long-term care workers who are at greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
Ehresmann said it is encouraging that 947 health care workers were vaccinated on Thursday and Friday, because the stability of hospital and clinic staffing is vital to helping Minnesota endure the pandemic.
That number didn't include vaccinations provided separately at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and Indian Health Service facilities in Minnesota. The Minneapolis VA had vaccinated 255 people through Wednesday and planned to add another 100 workers per day for the rest of this week.
The first vaccinations at Mayo Clinic in Rochester were cause for celebration, because they involved six health care workers who were at the forefront of the hospital's COVID-19 response and evaluated some of the first patients for the infectious disease.
Intensive care nurse Madeline Weiman smiled during her vaccination as she looked across at nurse Meera Patel, who had helped her don gowns and other personal protective equipment for the first time in the pandemic months ago.
Dr. Sean Caples welcomed vaccination after months of evaluating and treating critically ill patients with COVID-19.
"My mom used to have to drag me to the pediatrician [for a shot] and it was an ugly scene," he said, "but I was never more excited to get a shot than I was today."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744