Minnesota health officials and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Thursday urged vaccination for individuals at elevated risk of severe COVID-19, an infectious disease that has caused 6,860 deaths in the state.
The toll includes 12 deaths reported Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health, which also listed 2,140 more infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That daily case count — the first above 2,000 since Jan. 10 — raised the state's total to 521,667.
Klobuchar hosted a media event Thursday to highlight a makeshift vaccine clinic set up by Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare to vaccinate disabled patients who are old enough and their caregivers. Federal funding under the recently enacted American Rescue Plan has supported such efforts to provide vaccine in more accessible ways to vulnerable populations.
"Remember, every shot is one step closer to having things go back to normal — restaurants, barbecues, Twins games, and the like," Klobuchar said, "but I don't want this moment to go without knowing how difficult it is for families that have children with rare diseases."
The state on Thursday reported that 1,682,545 Minnesotans 16 or older have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, representing 38% of that eligible age group in the state. Of them, 1,057,848 people have completed the one- or two-dose series.
Minnesota on Tuesday opened up access to limited vaccine supplies to anyone 16 and older, but had previously reserved them for health care workers, long-term care facility residents, educators, senior citizens and non-elderly adults with qualifying health conditions or high-risk occupations.
Mark Brull of Edina had been vaccinated earlier this year because he is a caregiver for his 91-year-old mother, but said he had struggled to find vaccination opportunities for his wife and 16-year-old daughter, Maya, who is vulnerable to severe COVID-19 because she has intractable epilepsy.
A previous bout of pneumonia left the teenager intubated for six weeks, and COVID-19 illness could cause severe symptoms or increase the frequency of her epileptic seizures, her father said. Gaining vaccine for her through the Gillette clinic — set up at a warehouse in St. Paul three weeks ago — was an emotional day for the family.
"[I was] laughing and crying at the same time," Brull said, "that there is hope and there is a future and there is a sense of protection."
Senior citizens have suffered 89% of Minnesota's COVID-19 deaths, but the majority of those in younger age groups have involved people with chronic or disabling health conditions.
Health officials are concerned that new more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are causing a resurgence in pandemic activity in Minnesota and presenting new threats to those who have yet to be vaccinated.
The positivity rate of diagnostic testing rose to 5.4%, and the number of Minnesota hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients increased to 435 on Wednesday.
While hospitals are reporting younger patients and better outcomes — with 81% of vulnerable senior citizens already vaccinated — the number of COVID-19 patients needing intensive care also increased on Wednesday to 105.
That COVID-19 ICU number had dropped to 37 on March 6, the day after the state Health Department warned of a new cluster of infections related to youth sports activities in suburban Carver County and a more infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the virus. Since that time, the B.1.1.7 variant has been found statewide and is believed to be the cause of 50 to 60% of new SARS-CoV-2 infections.
State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann urged Minnesotans to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing in public and to stay home when sick to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Ehresmann spoke at the Klobuchar event in place of state Health Commisioner Jan Malcolm, who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but stayed home due to cold symptoms.
"The good news is that the numbers in terms of vaccinations are flaring up, too, so that's very positive," Ehresmann said, "but ... we are seeing our case numbers increase. We think that this is due in part to the circulation of variants across the state."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744