Minnesota debuted an online COVID-19 Vaccine Connector on Thursday that will notify all residents when they are eligible for shots and give senior citizens immediate access to a lottery for appointments at state-operated sites.

While initial doses are reserved for 1.5 million seniors, health care workers, educators and long-term care residents, Gov. Tim Walz said the tool at least gives people confidence that they will know when it is their turn to get the vaccine. Registrants provide their birth date and contacts, but also can opt to enter demographic and employment information, which can be used later on to determine their vaccine eligibility.

"We still have a frustratingly limited vaccine supply from the federal government, but every Minnesotan should know their chance to get a vaccine will come," Walz said.

More than 175,000 people signed up by 5 p.m. Thursday, reflecting the eagerness for vaccine against an infectious disease that has caused 6,404 deaths and 25,341 hospitalizations of Minnesotans.

Roughly 89% of Minnesota's COVID-19 deaths have been in people 65 and older, including 12 of 14 deaths reported Thursday.

Unrestricted access to vaccine is months away, but recent federal purchases of more doses could make that happen by summer, said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner. "That's a lot better news than late into the fall."

Seniors have struggled to access shots through their medical providers — some of which are making appointments by invitation only, or are starting with their oldest patients at greater risks of severe COVID-19. Retail pharmacies have only started to receive vaccine shipments.

Access to state-operated clinics in Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester was initially restricted to 220,000 seniors who signed up before registration closed. People already on that waiting list do not need to register on the connector. Seniors who aren't on that list will be added after using the new online tool.

Minnesotans who aren't eligible for vaccine yet will receive e-mails or texts when it is their turn. People can't book appointments directly through the new tool, but it will give them nearby options, said Tarek Tomes, commissioner of Minnesota IT Services. "It will connect them to the doors they can knock on to get vaccinated."

People can volunteer to provide personal data ranging from their sexual orientation to their smoking status to whether they have conditions such as diabetes and Down syndrome that exacerbate COVID-19.

No decisions have been made on the state's next priority groups for vaccine, Malcolm said, though there is a desire to provide earlier access to people with underlying health conditions. Once the next priority groups have been set, the tool will identify those who are now eligible based on the demographic information they entered.

"The data will be helpful in making sure we know who is getting vaccinated and how their priority status may suggest the need for additional outreach strategies," said Malcolm, adding that the information is kept private.

Other states have used this approach. West Virginia's COVID-19 response czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, testified to the Minnesota Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday that multiple, confusing sign-up lists are being consolidated into one preregistration site. More than 250,000 people are registered, but Marsh said the state with a population of 1.7 million needs more residents to sign up.

"We're moving all of those sublists onto this one queue," he said, "and we are able then to sort by priority status, whether it is age, essential worker, etc. … We're trying to put every West Virginian who hasn't been vaccinated into the list at this point."

West Virginia has seen a 70% drop in COVID-19 deaths in the first five weeks of 2021, reflecting its rapid use of local pharmacies to vaccinate vulnerable nursing home residents after the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were approved in December.

Minnesota is nearing 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered and has started to detect declines in infections and deaths among nursing home residents as well. More than 710,000 people in Minnesota have at least received first doses of vaccine, and 264,122 of them have completed the two-dose schedule that proved 95% protective in clinical trials.

Malcolm expected disruptions this week, though, as winter storms in the southern U.S. have delayed vaccine distribution nationally.

The state so far has postponed two community vaccination events Thursday and six on Friday. All people with postponed appointments are being directly notified.

"Its very unclear how much we are actually going to get and when," Malcolm said.

Retired state forest ecologist Kurt Rusterholz, 72, got word just before his vaccine appointment Thursday at St. Paul Corner Drug that it was canceled due to shipping delays. He and his wife had to pick between vaccination at the nearby pharmacy or an opportunity at HealthPartners, which, for all he knows, wasn't disrupted.

"Like everyone else, we're pretty frustrated," he said.

Health officials hope to accelerate vaccinations in part because of the emergence of more infectious variants of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Genomic sequencing identified 40 infections in Minnesota involving a variant first found in England, and the first two known U.S. cases of a variant identified in Brazil.

Indicators of pandemic severity have improved. The positivity rate of diagnostic testing dropped to 3.7%, below the caution threshold of 5%. The 54 COVID-19 patients in Minnesota intensive care beds on Wednesday was the lowest number since at least June 9, the earliest date on the state's pandemic response page.

Walz on Wednesday acknowledged feeling almost "giddy" about Minnesota's improving position. Mask-wearing, social distancing and restrictions on bars and group events helped Minnesota to avoid a post-Christmas surge of cases, buying time for the state to start vaccinations.

"We've got this thing beat down a little bit," Walz said.

The governor urged even skeptics to "buy in" to these protective measures for 90 days, when the state can vaccinate 1.5 million people and make further strides against the pandemic.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744