Minnesota's COVID-19 positivity rate has fallen to 4% amid continued signs of declining pandemic activity and rising vaccination numbers.

The decline is encouraging for state residents, because the positivity rate of diagnostic testing is considered a key indicator of the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The rate, which peaked at 15.5% on Nov. 10, hasn't been this low since June.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported six COVID-19 deaths and 586 diagnosed infections, bringing the state's totals to 6,308 deaths and 469,254 infections.

Though five of the deaths occurred in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, health officials said there are early signs that COVID-19 vaccinations are starting to reduce infections in those places.

The state on Tuesday reported that 569,164 people had received the first of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and that 162,132 had completed the two-dose series.

More than 41% of first doses have been administered to people 65 and older, who have suffered 89% of the COVID-19 deaths in the state.

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday announced a one-time diversion of 8,000 vaccine doses not being used in long-term care facilities this week to Walgreens pharmacies for senior citizens. Walmart and Thrifty White also are planning to administer 16,000 doses to senior citizens as part of a new federal partnership program.

Exact times and locations of Walmart and Walgreens pharmacy vaccinations haven't been announced. Walgreens is planning to offer doses in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and Washington counties in the metro area and Mower, Kandiyohi, Beltrami, Hubbard, Morrison, Rice, Olmsted, Steele, Freeborn, St. Louis, Stearns and Nicollet counties in greater Minnesota.

Thrifty White listed 6,200 vaccine appointments in 40 locations across Minnesota at 11 a.m. Tuesday. That number was down to 5,700 by 11:30 a.m.

Judy Anderson of Hopkins used the site Monday evening and considered herself fortunate to get an appointment for her 80-year-old mother in Waseca, some 70 miles away.

"The appointments go quickly," she said.

State officials said they were encouraged by the pandemic trends, but remained concerned about the potential for a new wave of infections and the threat of new and more infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2.

They encouraged continued social-distancing and mask-wearing, noting a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that found declines in COVID-19 cases in 10 states — including Minnesota — that had imposed mask-wearing mandates.

"It further shows that the sacrifices that Minnesotans have been making have had an impact in curbing the damage from this pandemic," according to a Health Department statement provided by spokesman Doug Schultz.

Walz last fall said a positivity rate of 4% or lower would prod him to consider dialing back restrictions on businesses and social gatherings designed to slow viral transmission.

However, another key pandemic benchmark is headed in the wrong direction. The governor also wanted to see a drop below 20% in the rate of COVID-19 cases with unknown community transmission sources. That rate has risen from 33% on January 10 to more than 39%, despite the gradual decline in cases.

State health officials last week said they continue to conduct contact tracing with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, but that many people simply can't or won't discuss how they got infected.

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, said it underscores the need for people to protect themselves.

"It really is important to mask, and to wear your mask properly, keep a social distance, wash your hands, etcetera," she said, "because people are not detecting where they are getting it."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744