Minnesota has risen from 45th to 14th among U.S. states in its rate of COVID-19 vaccine administration and will soon see its first shots being given in retail pharmacies.
Gov. Tim Walz announced a one-time diversion of 8,000 vaccine doses not being used in long-term care facilities this week to Walgreens pharmacies. Walmart and Thrifty White also are planning to administer 16,000 doses in what state officials hope will be growing utilization of retail pharmacies to protect Minnesotans against COVID-19.
"The vaccine supply remains extremely limited, but we are developing a strong and reliable network of different ways Minnesotans can get vaccinated," Walz said.
The pharmacy chains are expected to offer appointments for shots later this week.
At least 556,482 people have received first doses, and 158,763 of them have completed the two-dose series, according to the latest state COVID-19 vaccine data. Roughly 41% of first doses have been administered to people 65 and older, who have suffered 89% of Minnesota's 6,302 COVID-19 deaths. The state total includes three deaths reported Monday.
Minnesota's improved ranking by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its rate of doses administered per 100,000 people follows three weeks of efforts to move more vaccine out of freezers and into arms.
More than 220,000 senior citizens registered two weeks ago on a waiting list for COVID-19 vaccine opportunities at state-run sites — with a permanent site in Rochester joining those set up last week in Minneapolis and Duluth.
The at-times hectic increase in vaccination opportunities has caused frustration, though, because limited quantities of doses have been prioritized for some needy groups but not others.
After vaccinating roughly 500,000 health care workers and long-term care residents, Minnesota at first planned to move on to people 75 and older and workers such as police officers, teachers and utility workers in front-line essential occupations. The state instead has started vaccinating anyone 65 and older and teachers only.
People younger than 65 with underlying health problems were supposed to have early access to vaccines as well, but many are wondering when their turn will come.
Linda Allen of Minnetonka said her 65th birthday on March 19 could get her faster access to vaccine than the autoimmune disease that puts her at great risk if she gets COVID-19.
"It just seems wrong to me that this group hasn't been given a higher priority or mentioned at all since the vaccine came out," she said.
Vaccine providers have had to adapt, too. Dr. Rahul Koranne, chief executive of the Minnesota Hospital Association, issued a blunt letter to state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Friday over a switch from regional distribution of weekly COVID-19 vaccine shipments among rural and smaller health care providers to a lottery system that made it difficult to plan.
Clinics that are lottery losers "are increasingly put in the impossible position of telling their patients and their communities that they do not have vaccines for them," he wrote.
Koranne apologized on Saturday in a letter to Walz for airing his concerns publicly and implying any lack of commitment to vaccinating rural Minnesotans, while the Health Department issued a statement indicating that it had already been moving away from a random draw. The state plans next week to resume distribution of doses for smaller providers through regional health care coalitions that meet weekly to assess local vaccine needs.
The coalitions initially had been used to distribute vaccine for health care workers, whereas state officials had considered a lottery to be a more ethical method.
Providers argued that they needed a more predictable supply chain than a lottery, especially now that the state is publicly measuring them on their ability to administer all doses within seven days of receiving them.
Malcolm agreed that the change will help "ensure that all providers receiving vaccine meet the timeliness goals."
Shipments of 83,825 first doses this week included 39,800 for medical providers to administer to seniors and remaining health care workers; 7,000 for state-run sites for senior citizens; and 10,000 for county clinics for educators.
School districts initially received small, proportionate quantities of vaccine, but now some counties are targeting entire districts one at a time. Forest Lake Area Schools announced distance learning for all students Friday, when its entire staff will have access to vaccine.
Increased vaccination comes amid continued declines in the last wave of the pandemic in Minnesota, which has reported 468,682 diagnosed infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That includes 564 infections reported Monday.
The positivity rate of diagnostic testing has fallen from a peak of 15.5% on Nov. 10 to 4.1% in the seven days ending Jan. 28. The rate is a key indicator of the level of viral transmission occurring in Minnesota and is below the state warning threshold of 5%.
Minnesota hospitals reported 330 COVID-19 patients admitted to inpatient beds on Sunday, including 80 who needed intensive care due to breathing problems or other complications from their infections. The state had peaked at 1,864 hospitalizations on Nov. 29.
The three deaths reported Monday included one resident of a long-term care facility and a Chisago County resident in the 45 to 49 age range. The state has reported 134 COVID-19 deaths involving Minnesotans 49 or younger.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744