A promised surge of more COVID-19 vaccine doses may not materialize, clouding Minnesota's plans for accelerating and expanding immunizations.
Gov. Tim Walz reacted angrily to the news, first reported by the Washington Post on Friday morning, calling it "appalling" and "egregious."
Federal officials said on Tuesday they would release the second doses that were being held in reserve so that states could use them as first doses in an effort to get more people started on the vaccine process. But, according to news reports and some governors, there was no stockpile of reserved doses.
"They knew when they told us they were going to release them that they didn't have any," Walz said.
Minnesota health officials were on the cusp of announcing the next steps in the rollout of the vaccines as the highest priority groups of health care workers and long-term care residents are scheduled to be immunized by month's end.
"We are going to have to go back to re-evaluate what this news means," Walz said at a Friday media briefing.
At the same time that federal officials said they would release the vaccines, they urged states to broaden vaccine distribution to those age 65 and up, as well as those with underlying health conditions, such as heart, lung or kidney disease, that put them at a greater risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
In Minnesota, that would add 2.1 million to the pool of those who would be eligible to get vaccinated.
"I have 2.1 million of you in line and they gave us 60,000" doses, Walz said.
On Thursday, the Health Department said that hospitals and other vaccinators can give leftover vaccines to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, but that is not expected to broaden access widely as priority will still be given to health care workers and long-term care residents.
It is unclear where Minnesota's vaccine strategy will go next. Before this week, the plan was to next immunize those age 75 and older, along with front-line workers in essential industries. Together, those groups account for 1 million state residents.
Minnesota is receiving about 60,000 first doses a week, giving it some supply to continue vaccination efforts, although there is growing pressure to speed things up.
So far, 162,040 Minnesotans have been vaccinated, including 24,745 who have received both doses needed to receive the highest immunity protection.
With 626,925 doses shipped or on their way to the state, that means that 36.6% of doses have been used, according to the state's vaccine tracking website. Due to reporting lags, the number of shots given is from reports received through Tuesday.
Minnesota will receive $50.9 million from a recently passed COVID-19 relief bill to support state vaccination efforts.
"We definitely could use more funding," said Deputy Health Commissioner Margaret Kelly, who estimates that it will take $134 million to roll out the vaccine to the state's 5.6 million residents.
President-elect Joe Biden announced this week that he will ask Congress for $20 billion to set up a comprehensive vaccination program, in addition to more funding for testing and vaccine manufacturing.
Minnesotan Andy Slavitt, who was brought on by the Obama administration to help repair the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act, said he will join the Biden team as a senior adviser for COVID response.
"This is an all hands on deck moment," Slavitt said. "After the last 10 months, Americans deserve to know that there will be a team of people working around the clock to right the ship so people can get back to their lives."
Slavitt said that he expects to serve in the White House through May, working on vaccine and recovery communications as well as helping coordinate efforts in the private sector, including with drugmakers and hospitals.
The state is also in line to receive $324.6 million for COVID-19 testing as part of the stimulus bill. Those funds will be used to continue the state's free community testing sites as well as some money for contact tracing and a $70 million effort to test teachers and school personnel every other week.
Testing resources could become strained this spring as a new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus could become the predominant source of new infections by March, according to research released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 3.1 million Minnesotans have taken nearly 6.1 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests, including 46,861 test results that were reported to state officials Thursday, which found 1,640 new coronavirus infections.
Minnesota has seen 443,562 known cases, along with 5,850 deaths, including 33 more deaths announced Friday. Those include 18 residents of long-term care facilities.
Most people who become ill from the coronavirus experience mild or no symptoms. An estimated 422,289 of those sickened are considered to be no longer infectious.
People with underlying health conditions, including heart, lung and kidney disease, are more likely to develop serious complications that require medical attention.
The number of people needing hospitalization for COVID-19 complications continues to decline. A total of 612 patients were getting care, down from 724 a week earlier. Intensive care beds were filled with 125 patients, down from 132 in the prior week.
Statewide, 88% of the 1,212 intensive care beds were occupied with COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192