As Minnesotans eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19 understand all too well, demand for shots far exceeds the limited supply. While there are reasons to be hopeful that availability will improve, scrutiny is needed right now to ensure that the current vaccine stock is being given promptly.
That's why new data released this week by the state Department of Health is an important step forward. It addresses a timely question raised by the Star Tribune Editorial Board on Jan. 14: Which organizations are performing well, and which are lagging, when it comes to getting shots in arms?
Responsibility for administering the vaccine is fragmented among state health care systems, large chain pharmacies, tribal health, community health centers and local and state public health. The large pharmacies are part of a federal partnership focused on inoculating long-term care residents.
Before the new information became available on Monday, there wasn't enough public data to compare the performance of individual health care systems and the pharmacy chains. That was problematic.
The vaccine doesn't protect anyone if it's still in the vial. In addition, a national vaccine tracker showed that Minnesota is behind other states when it came to using its supply. Before the state made the new data available this week, Minnesotans didn't have a window into where specific vaccine bottlenecks might be. Now, they can compare organizations by name and the percentage of vaccines administered.
In conjunction with these changes, Gov. Tim Walz on Monday took a smart additional step, calling on providers to "administer 90% of their vaccine doses within three days of receiving them, and all doses within one week." Those that don't "should anticipate potential changes to their vaccine allocations," according to Walz's office.
Many of the state's largest health care systems appear to be on track. Allina, Essentia Health, Mayo Clinic, Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and HealthPartners/Park Nicollet all meet the three-day, 90% use guideline, with other notable health care systems not far behind. But some others fall short. The three large pharmacy chains — Walgreens, CVS and Thrifty White — working in Minnesota as part of the federal long-term care partnership hovered above or slightly below the 50% mark.
Asked for an explanation, a Walgreens spokesman pointed at an unwieldy sign-up process for the program. Long-term care facilities were asked how much vaccine they would need. "In many cases, they overestimated the number of doses needed due to fluctuations in occupancy levels and the impact of vaccine hesitancy," the spokesman said, adding that the chain is working with public health officials to reallocate unused supply.
Among Minnesota health providers, CentraCare, North Memorial Health and the St. Luke's system were notable names that didn't meet the governor's three-day 90% goal. In an interview with an editorial writer, CentraCare's Dr. George Morris acknowledged that "we have an opportunity here to deliver more vaccines into the arms of our community members" and said that the central Minnesota health care system's three-day administration percentage has climbed swiftly since Monday.
At the same time, Morris noted that CentraCare is serving as a vaccine "hub" for broad swaths of Minnesota, meaning it's a holding site for thousands of doses for clinics and other sites not part of its system. State data may not credit CentraCare for doses administered at these unaffiliated locations.
The additional transparency is not a cure-all for a slow, confusing vaccine rollout here and nationally. Still, highlighting where improvements can be made can help ensure limited supplies of this lifesaving vaccine are given swiftly.