The Food and Drug Administration's long-awaited approval last week of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 unleashed a flurry of mandates from employers, state and local governments, performance venues and bars and restaurants.
But it may be too early to know if the FDA's blessing will convince the vaccine hesitant that the shots are safe and effective.
As of last week, an estimated 71.4% of Minnesotans 16 and older have received at least one injection, but in some counties fewer than half those eligible have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, infections and hospitalizations — mostly among the unvaccinated — are once again surging across Minnesota and the United States, driven this time by the highly infectious delta variant.
Some staffers at pharmacies administering vaccines noted a slight uptick in demand for shots last week following the FDA's Pfizer approval, compared with the week before. At a Walgreens in Savage, staffers estimated they had seen about 10 more people a day getting shots following the FDA announcement.
A few miles away at a Cub Pharmacy, pharmacist Lindsay Lohse said the store had seen an increase in vaccinations throughout August, though not necessarily in the past week. She believed that at least one family she saw last week had been on the fence about getting vaccinated before deciding to do it because of the FDA approval.
"The people that have been coming in have been requesting Pfizer more so, I think, because of the approval," she said.
Lohse said people coming in to get the shot over the past month listed a variety of reasons for finally pulling the trigger. Some were doing so ahead of travel plans, while others wanted to do it before heading back to school. "A good amount" of people said they decided to get it because of the $100 incentive that Gov. Tim Walz's administration launched on July 30 and wrapped up on Aug. 22, she said.
Laura Hunter, 50, was shaking as she waited to get her first COVID shot last week at Walgreens in Lakeville. A gut feeling had kept her from getting vaccinated for months. The fast-tracked vaccines, the lack of knowledge about long-term effects, her own blood clotting disorder — it all just didn't feel right.
But on Thursday she was waiting in line for a shot she did not want. It wasn't the FDA's approval that changed her mind, however. Like many Minnesotans who have been wary about getting vaccinated, her decision was about family.
"I have parents that are 81 and they are so terrified of the virus. So basically, I'm doing it for them. I just hope that nothing bad happens," Hunter said. "I really do not want to do this."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID vaccines have been more intensively monitored for safety than any other vaccine in U.S. history, using both established and new monitoring systems. Authorities say the vaccines teach one's immune system how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID.
More than 366 million doses have been administered in the United States, and about a third of the world's population — about 2.6 billion — is fully vaccinated.
The number of vaccine doses administered in Minnesota peaked in April at 1.6 million, fell to 179,000 in July, but has risen steadily in August to 209,000 with a few days remaining in the month. Reasons may range from the $100 incentives offered by the state to get a shot, to increasing anxiety over the highly transmittable delta variant.
On the other hand, last week's total doses in the state were trending slightly below the recent weekly average. An average of a little more than 59,000 doses were administered weekly in Minnesota in the first three weeks of August; as of Wednesday, the number for last week was about 32,000.
For some people, opposition to the vaccine has been galvanized by a feeling that the government and employers are forcing them to get it. Others say they simply haven't been able to make time for a shot, or don't have the transportation means to get to an appointment.
For a number of Native American and Black residents, medical trauma in their communities' pasts has made them hesitant to get vaccinated.
"I don't think a lot of the people anymore are hesitant — I think they are averse," said Twila Brase, president and co-founder of the Citizens' Council for Health Freedom, which has put up billboards in northern Minnesota saying "Don't be bullied" with a photo of a COVID vaccine vial.
The Citizens' Council has participated in events opposing mask and vaccination mandates, sharing a number of views popular with many conservatives but in conflict with what most medical and public health officials say. Brase herself spoke Saturday at an anti-mandate rally at the State Capitol, along with a number of elected officials and a couple GOP gubernatorial candidates.
For Bryce Wasmund, 34, who got the vaccine minutes ahead of Hunter at the Lakeville Walgreens, family reasons compelled him to go for it.
"My dad wanted me to get it," he said, noting that his father has problems with his immune system.
"I'm in an age bracket where I'd probably be OK," Wasmund said, so he did not rush to get the vaccine. "Seeing the survival rate, it wasn't a huge cause for concern for me. But protecting other people is the reason I did it."
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044