ST. CLOUD – The Sherburne County director of health and human services describes the process for scheduling COVID-19 vaccines "kind of like throwing darts."

Residents can sign up for vaccines through the state, clinics or pharmacies, which makes planning hard when counties have doses to give but residents have already crossed county lines to be vaccinated.

Recently in Sherburne County, officials could barely find 800 people to receive shots in a week although more than 4,000 people had signed up. People had received their shots elsewhere or the available appointment times didn't work. And half of the doses given in the county are going to nonresidents, according to Amanda Larson, the health and human services director.

"It's inefficient for them and also for us," she said. "We're either flooded or we can't find enough people."

Central Minnesota officials are hopeful the new permanent vaccine site that opened Wednesday at River's Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud will help improve access.

The site will be open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays "until Minnesota says we don't need to be here anymore," said Dr. Myles Spar, chief medical officer at Vault Health.

Spar led a tour of the new site Wednesday. Gov. Tim Walz was scheduled to attend but canceled after learning that a member of his staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm all plan to quarantine through March 25.

Spar said he expects Vault Health, which runs several COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites in the state, to be running vaccine sites through at least the summer.

Eligible residents can sign up to be vaccinated at the St. Cloud site through the state.

Spar said 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine will be administered each week in St. Cloud. When people get scheduled for their first dose, they will automatically be scheduled for their second dose at the site four weeks later.

The vaccination rate in Stearns County, where 22% of residents have received at least one dose, is close to the statewide average of 23%, though its two neighboring counties lag behind.

Sherburne County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state — 14.2% of residents had received one dose as of Monday — and Benton County has the second lowest rate at 15.2%.

Janet Goligowski, human services public health director for Stearns County, called the new site a "game-changer."

"Having 1,000 new vaccines a week coming into our area means that by the end of April we have an additional 6,000 vaccines," she said, adding, "We are in a race against the COVID variants."

Julie Willman, community health specialist with Benton County, said though the clinic is in Stearns County, it will benefit the whole region.

"We are a much smaller county than Stearns County," she said. "And while our public health team has been working very hard to distribute vaccinations, having this state site will be very helpful."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny