Health care providers and other vaccinators can start giving COVID-19 vaccines to people who are not in the designated high-priority groups, including those 65 and older, but the shots will still not be widely available for now.
State health officials said Thursday that the new guidance applies only to sites that have some leftover doses after completing vaccinations of front-line health care and other high-priority workers.
"It is really more to give the providers flexibility with what little extra doses they have right now," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "Today's announcement is designed simply to remove barriers."
Although limited in scope, Thursday's announcement is likely to set off a scramble by those eager to get protection from the coronavirus, but there is not yet any statewide system for people to sign up to get the shots.
Malcolm said that an announcement about expanding eligibility beyond the first priority groups will be coming in a few days.
"We will be communicating much more broadly with Minnesotans about how we will be making more opportunities available," she said.
On Tuesday, the federal government urged states to implement wider vaccine distribution strategies in an effort to get more people vaccinated. In addition to the elderly, it recommended shots for any adult who has underlying health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic kidney disease.
In Minnesota, the emphasis has so far been on vaccinating health care workers and long-term care residents. State officials were set to unveil plans next week on how to vaccinate the next priority groups, which include those 75 and over as well as front-line workers in essential industries.
After the abrupt policy switch at the federal level, which took Minnesota health officials by surprise, it is unclear which groups will be next in line.
"We didn't get any warning about this," state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann told a Minnesota Senate health committee Wednesday.
Compounding the situation will be the change in presidential administrations next week, along with a new set of health agency leaders and COVID-19 policy advisers.
"There's just a lot of uncertainty at this point about what will happen," Ehresmann said.
If Minnesota follows the new federal guidance, another 2.2 million state residents will become vaccine-eligible.
"We have far more Minnesotans eligible for getting the vaccine than we have doses available," Malcolm said. "Now we really need for the federal government to step up and provide us with additional doses."
The state is receiving about 60,000 new vaccine doses each week from allotments made by the federal government.
As of Monday, the most recent day for which data is available, 153,332 Minnesotans have gotten at least one of the two required doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
The federal government has allocated 558,300 doses to the state, with some of those arriving next week.
Of those, 104,900 doses have been marked for long-term care residents and workers.
More than 70% of all doses administered in the state have happened in hospitals, where clinicians who care for COVID-19 patients and emergency department workers were assigned the highest priority.
Local public health agencies are also giving shots to emergency medical services personnel.
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka welcomed the development that more people could be eligible for the COVID-19 shots.
"I'm glad more high-risk people in Minnesota will be able to access the vaccine with this change," Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a statement. "That's the important part — we have to target our protection to those most at risk, and this is a great step in the right direction."
Malcolm said that some providers were asking the Health Department what they should do with unused vaccine doses.
"We were hearing feedback from partners that they would like the flexibility to use any additional doses that they have on these additional populations that the federal government has told us we are able to make a priority," she said.
But some health care systems say they still don't have enough vaccine to immunize their workers.
"We want more doses and we're just not getting them and, if we had them, we would be moving faster and getting our employees done," said Dr. Abinash Virk, a co-leader of COVID-19 vaccine distribution for Mayo Clinic.
Virk said no doses get wasted. Any leftover vaccine at the end of the day is given to high-priority workers on a standby list.
Some smaller facilities within the Sanford Health system could take advantage of greater flexibility.
"We are very excited to see that," said Jesse Breidenbach, senior executive director of pharmacy. "We have had some locations where it looks like that would be a great way to use that vaccine."
So far, 5,817 state residents have died in the pandemic, with 64% of them residents of long-term care, including 23 of the 43 new deaths announced Thursday.
Another 1,598 new infections were reported to the state, bringing the state's total to 441,935. Of those, 420,919 are no longer considered to be infectious.
Most people who are sickened experience mild or no symptoms, but those with underlying health conditions, including heart, lung and kidney disease, are at the most risk.
In Minnesota hospitals, 645 patients were getting care for COVID-19 complications, including 131 in intensive care units. COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen 70% since Dec. 1.
A total of 36,678 test results were reported to state officials.
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.