Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Mayo Clinic on Wednesday, promoting COVID-19 vaccination to newly eligible grade-school children as a protection against a pandemic wave that has worsened in Minnesota.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths might be less common in children, but vaccine can reduce these preventable tragedies and slow the spread of the coronavirus to adults who are more vulnerable, Becerra said after touring a vaccination clinic at the Rochester medical campus.

"We have to protect our kids; It's time," Becerra said. "We now have been given the green light by the people who count the most — the doctors, the scientists, the researchers."

Minnesota health officials hope new pediatric COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses in adults this fall will reduce pandemic numbers that have defied predictions and worsened over the past week. A total of 1,159 people with COVID-19 were receiving inpatient care in Minnesota hospitals on Tuesday, and they combined with non-COVID patients to consume 96% of the state's available intensive care beds.

The state's positivity rate of recent COVID-19 diagnostic testing increased to 9.3%, the highest rate since Dec. 10, indicating that the coronavirus remains widespread. Minnesota ranked sixth among states for its rate of new infections over the past seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mayo's 14-day modeling predicted that Minnesota would have the nation's highest new infection rate within two weeks, though not all forecasts are so pessimistic. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state predicts the rate of new infections in Minnesota will peak next week, though pressure on hospitals will escalate into December.

Becerra came to Minnesota at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who appeared with him at Mayo on Wednesday along with Gov. Tim Walz. The governor said new pediatric vaccinations along with booster doses in eligible adult Minnesotans can help reduce the latest wave.

"We can get a handle on the surge we're in," Walz said.

Minnesota reported a first-dose vaccination rate among people 12 and older of more than 74%, but that rate increases to 96% among seniors and declines to 59% among children 12-15.

The state has launched incentives to increase vaccinations among teenagers, including $200 gift cards for new recipients 12-17 and a lottery drawing for five $100,000 scholarships to attend college in Minnesota for all recipients in that age range.

More than 13,000 newly eligible children 5-11 have received pediatric doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine since it became available late last week.

Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a Mayo pediatric infectious disease specialist, called it a "misconception" that children aren't harmed by the coronavirus, noting that COVID-19 is now one of the top 10 causes of death among children in the U.S.

"With the availability of this vaccine," she said, "many of those hospitalizations and deaths will become vaccine-preventable events."

Rajapakse said the "mental health crisis among children" has emerged because of their isolation and loss of social contact, and vaccination can mean a return to activities again.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744