Minnesotans might not need a $1 million incentive to get vaccinated for COVID-19, as Gov. Tim Walz quipped last week, but maybe a free park pass or fishing license will do.
State and public health leaders said Tuesday they are considering incentives to kick-start progress beyond the 2.7 million people in Minnesota who have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccination progress has slowed in Minnesota, which has reported 7,310 COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic and 595,532 infections with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease.
"Gov. Walz is open to all ideas," spokesman Teddy Tschann said. "We're going to get creative with our campaign to encourage Minnesotans to get vaccinated."
Walz has been enthusiastic about new incentives after hearing about strategies in other states with high vaccination rates. The governor previously incentivized vaccinations with the promise of lifting his indoor mask mandate once Minnesota reached a 70% first-dose vaccination rate among people 16 and older. But he lifted the mandate last week after updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minnesota's vaccination rate reached 61.7% Tuesday.
Minnesota businesses have stepped in — the St. Paul Saints offered ticket vouchers to unvaccinated fans who got shots at last week's home opener and Lake Monster Brewing hosted a vaccination event at which it provided free beer coupons. But other states have led their own incentive programs as well.
Ohio saw a surge in shots Friday after offering a $1 million lottery for recipients. Maine offered incentives that include fishing licenses, baseball tickets and L.L. Bean shopping vouchers.
Minnesota leaders couldn't share specifics Tuesday, but said they are exploring incentives that will persuade people but fit within Minnesota's laws regarding public giveaways.
Minnesota has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation — ranking 13th among states for its rate of fully vaccinated individuals, according to the latest federal COVID-19 State Profile Report.
More than 2.3 million people in Minnesota have received their final doses, and roughly 2 million are considered fully vaccinated — meaning it has been 14 days since their final shots. However, the number of shots administered per week has declined from 407,586 in the week starting April 4 to 219,094 in the week starting May 9.
A weakness in Minnesota's vaccination campaign is its outer suburbs, according to a study released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Minnesota was ahead of the U.S. in providing shots in urban centers, midsize towns and rural areas through April 10, its first-dose vaccination rate of 43.8% in adults in the 12 suburban counties surrounding Hennepin and Ramsey counties was below the national rate of 45.8%.
Utah and Washington were the only other states in the study with above average vaccination rates overall but poorer performance in outer suburbs.
Over the winter, Minnesota prioritized limited vaccine supply for health care providers, long-term care facility residents, teachers and senior citizens — and the latest numbers suggest progress in these groups.
None of the 14 COVID-19 deaths reported Tuesday in Minnesota involved long-term care residents. Infections since March have surged among pre-K-12 students, but not among their educators.
The state's positivity rate of recent COVID-19 diagnostic testing — a key barometer of viral transmission — also fell to 5% for the first time since mid-March.
Much of the state's focus this month has been on increasing vaccine access in vulnerable urban and rural areas where higher rates of poverty make it harder for people to receive shots and higher rates of chronic disease increase the risks of people suffering severe COVID-19 illness. The number of metro buses converted into mobile vaccine clinics is increasing and bringing more doses to locations that are easier for people to reach.
The Ramsey County Board voted Tuesday for an indoor mask-wearing requirement in county-owned facilities — with the goal of keeping viral transmission low and buying time to provide shots to people who have had limited access because of transportation, income, employment or other barriers.
Some families wanted to receive shots all at once, but didn't have the opportunity until last week when the federal government dropped the minimum age for the Pfizer version of the vaccine from 16 to 12, said Kathy Hedin, deputy county manager of health and wellness in Ramsey County. The minimum age to receive the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remains 18.
Teenagers also have been eager to get vaccinated in order to see friends and participate in social activities. "I've never seen my daughter so excited to get a shot before. She's usually terrified," Hedin said.
The expansion to children ages 12 to 15 adds 283,000 more eligible vaccine recipients in Minnesota. Roughly 18,000 children in this age group have received vaccine in the past week, based on the number of vaccinated individuals on the state COVID-19 website that haven't been assigned to an older age category.
The new Ramsey order waives the requirement for masks outdoors but requires that they be worn in indoor public spaces such as libraries and service centers. County workers don't need to wear them at their workspaces or in meetings in which social distancing can be maintained.
Hennepin County requires that masks be worn in its indoor facilities. Washington County does not, but posted signs encouraging unvaccinated people to wear masks. Anoka County requires masks only at certain work sites and correctional facilities.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have broader indoor mask-wearing requirements that apply beyond public buildings. Health officials in the two cities are discussing common standards, such as vaccination thresholds, under which those requirements would be reduced.
Staff writers Shannon Prather, Matt McKinney and Tim Harlow contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744