Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday urged more COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of the holidays to confront a pandemic wave that is pushing hospitals beyond capacity and causing more infection in schools and communities.
State leaders acknowledged that vaccination appointments are becoming scarce, partly because of a shortage of health care providers to administer shots, but they urged people to be persistent and get their shots to reduce the risks of severe illness and hospitalization.
"Don't take up a [hospital] bed because you're unvaccinated," said Walz, speaking at Century College, where a vaccination event provided first doses and boosters to 500 people.
Minnesota reported 40 more COVID-19 deaths and 3,754 more infections Thursday, and a 2021 record 1,653 COVID-19 hospitalizations Wednesday. Only 22 of 1,012 available adult intensive care beds were open Wednesday.
Walz said he was alarmed to hear that St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd had 15 intensive care beds but almost twice as many critically ill patients, forcing the hospital to double up rooms or keep patients in the halls or other spaces. Regions Hospital in St. Paul likewise reported 107% intensive care capacity in its ICUs.
"Even if you get severely ill, or fall on the ice, or like to go skiing or snowboarding or anything and hurt yourself, unfortunately there may not be a way for you to get treated," said Dr. Zeke McKinney, an occupational and environmental physician with HealthPartners, which operates Regions.
Unvaccinated Minnesotans make up the majority of hospitalizations. Sanford Health on Tuesday reported that 190 of its 207 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized in Minnesota and the Dakotas were unvaccinated. Among 37 patients on ventilators, 35 were unvaccinated.
Growth in hospitalizations eased a bit this week, and state leaders are hopeful that additional vaccinations and booster doses have increased protection against the fast-spreading delta variant.
Nearly 40% of fully vaccinated Minnesota adults have received booster doses, a rate that ranks second in the nation. Overall, Minnesota ranks 23rd among states with a first-dose vaccination rate of 74.4% in people 5 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That leaves 1.3 million eligible residents unvaccinated.
The call for more vaccinations has been frustrating for some Minnesotans, unable to find appointments that would leave them fully protected in time for Christmas and holiday gatherings. A spokesman for Walgreens reported a "significant spike in demand" for appointments over the next three weeks and that the chain pharmacy administered a record number of doses nationwide last week.
Abigail Carter, a 23-year-old Century student, considered herself fortunate to get her appointment at Thursday's event after fruitless attempts at Twin Cities pharmacies.
"I was looking everywhere to get an appointment," she said, noting that her medical provider had no openings until late January.
Joanna Spiekermeier got appointments for a booster for herself and first doses for her 9- and 5-year-old children at the Century event, but slots filled before she could make a fourth one for her husband, John. He was grateful to find one a 35-minute-drive from home instead.
"Honestly, with this omicron coming out, I stepped up my search for the booster," he said.
Omicron was labeled a variant of concern after it was identified last month in South Africa because it appears to spread faster than delta and could evade immunity from vaccination and previous infection.
Genomic sequencing of eight suspect specimens from COVID-19 cases among Minnesotans found omicron in a Hennepin County man who had traveled to New York before Thanksgiving. The other seven did not involve omicron, and the Hennepin man isolated himself and did not infect others in the state. Additional suspect samples are being analyzed with results expected next week.
Only four COVID-19 deaths in teenagers have been reported since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, but all occurred this fall and health officials have encouraged eligible children 5 and older to seek shots. The state in its weekly COVID-19 report Thursday showed a preliminary total of 2,969 COVID-19 cases in pre-K-12 students who were infectious in their school buildings during the week ending Nov. 20.
Vaccine shipments to Minnesota increased from 172,290 in the week ending Nov. 27 to 347,650 this week. The state also increased staffing to expand capacity at the Mall of America site from 1,500 shots to 2,000 per day, and scheduled 63 vaccination events this month.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm acknowledged that staffing is a limitation, with many health care providers committing staff to direct patient care rather than to vaccination events. She said the state has requested 109 more workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in part to expand vaccination opportunities.
Paramedic Colin Underwood, 38, of St. Paul, left the Century event relieved. His work puts him at high risk for COVID-19, and he already suffered an infection in July 2020. While he suffered mild symptoms at the time, he still cannot smell or taste anything.
"There is no flavor to anything. Everything is plain," he said. "I have a whole plan in place if I ever get my taste back. I'm going to Italy for coffee. I'm going to go to Europe and just go nuts on good food."