COVID-19 vaccine has been provided to 66% of Minnesota's senior citizens, bringing the state within days of reaching its 70% target to expand eligibility to people with certain high-risk health conditions and food plant workers.
The state hadn't expected to reach this next priority group until April, but its timetable hadn't factored in the addition of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Nearly 1.1 million people in Minnesota have received COVID-19 vaccine, which has been given first to health care workers, educators, long-term care facility residents and senior citizens.
State health officials said Monday's new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will increase demand, because it allows fully vaccinated people to visit one another indoors without masks or social distancing. However, they warned that the federal guidance still calls for mask-wearing and social distancing in public and isn't a broader excuse for complacency.
"It's clear motivation for us to take advantage of the vaccine opportunities when we get them," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, "but I think it's important to realize that we are not at a place in Minnesota where this guidance really impacts many people."
Minnesota's vaccine total includes 592,134 people who have completed their shots — either by receiving two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, or a single dose of the newly available Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That's more than 10% of the adult population, but people are only considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their final doses, because it takes time for the vaccine to trigger a protective immune system response.
Only around 6.4% of Minnesota adults are considered fully vaccinated at the moment.
Seniors were prioritized for vaccine because they have suffered nearly nine in 10 of Minnesota's 6,556 COVID-19 deaths. The total includes six deaths reported Monday by the Minnesota Department of Health. The state also added 473 infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the respiratory disease. Testing has found 490,483 infections among Minnesotans so far.
Ehresmann said social distancing and mask-wearing remains critical as Minnesota is in a "race against time" to vaccinate the population before new, more infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2 become widespread.
The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in England, has driven an outbreak in suburban Carver County. The state has identified 27 COVID-19 cases involving that variant in people who are either from that county or participated in sports or fitness activities there.
Public health officials advised a two-week pause starting Monday on organized youth sports in that county because 84 infections have been traced to hockey, wrestling, basketball, downhill skiing and other sports. Ehresmann said after-sports gatherings and activities are especially discouraged, because in some cases infected athletes were wearing masks and taking precautions during games, meets and practices but not in gatherings afterward.
Children rarely suffer severe COVID-19 but are concerning because they can spread the virus to others at risk and don't have access to vaccine yet. Only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for people 16 and older; the others are approved for people 18 and older.
"Our concern is that ongoing transmission in this population will allow B.1.1.7 as a variant to spread quickly across the state," Ehresmann said. "High levels of transmission could allow for the emergence of other variants."
The state has launched pop-up COVID-19 testing sites this month in an attempt to contain outbreaks in Carver but also in Thief River Falls and surrounding Pennington County in northwestern Minnesota.
Overall, the state continues to see declining levels of viral activity — as the positivity rate of diagnostic testing remains at 3.6%, below the state caution threshold of 5%.
Mayo Clinic modeling, made publicly available for the first time last Wednesday, showed little chance of a surge in COVID-19 in Minnesota in the coming weeks that compares to last fall's wave. The model, which has been used privately to guide Mayo on hospital demand and Gov. Tim Walz on the state's response strategy, was updated to account for the impact of the vaccine.
"We can't predict people's behavior," cautioned Dr. Sean Dowdy, who helped develop the Mayo model. "That has a big impact on this."
Minnesota's next priority group for vaccination includes at least 28,000 people 16 or older at elevated risk of severe COVID-19 due to high-risk conditions such as sickle cell disease, Down syndrome, and lung and heart conditions requiring supplemental oxygen. People who are being treated for cancer or who have weakened immune systems following organ transplants also qualify.
This group also includes roughly 44,000 food plant workers, selected in part to preserve the food supply during the pandemic. Nobles County had the nation's highest rate of new COVID-19 cases last spring during an outbreak at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, which was shut down for two weeks.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm predicted it might take only a couple weeks to vaccinate this group, because the people with high-risk conditions have close contacts with medical providers, and food plant workers might get shots at workplace events.
The next priority group after that is much larger — more than 1.7 million people. It includes adults with certain qualifying chronic health conditions such as diabetes and a broader range of essential front-line workers, including airport security, food servers, police officers, mail carriers and bus drivers.
Minnesota has already vaccinated 55% of the state's K-12 and child-care educators. Walz on Monday said that has helped expand at least some form of in-person learning to 90% of the state's school districts and charter schools.
Ehresmann said the new CDC guidance will be incorporated into the state's COVID-19 response plan in the coming days. It also OK'd fully vaccinated people to visit unvaccinated people from one other household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19. Fully vaccinated people also can refrain from quarantine and testing after contact with someone with COVID-19.