Casey Drug had 72 hours to administer 90 of 100 doses of COVID-19 vaccine it received on Tuesday, and the Chisholm, Minn., pharmacy needed only 24 hours to get all of them injected.
Using a phone tree of customers, the pharmacy had 105 senior citizens slotted for vaccination at a community center on Wednesday and ended up with seven more doses than expected out of the 10-dose vials. Quick calls to seniors on a standby list had those gone in minutes.
"There's so many people who want it," pharmacist Aden Casey said. "They set aside that time to wait for our phone call."
Large chain pharmacies gained headlines this week in Minnesota as Thrifty White and Walmart started scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations of 16,000 senior citizens under a federal partnership, and Walgreens diverted 8,000 doses for that purpose. But small independent pharmacies have quietly received their first shipments to vaccinate community members as well, and their leaders don't want to miss their chance to prove their worth — especially with the state publicly measuring their performance.
"We just figure, if we do well, we will get more doses," said Casey, whose pharmacy is listed on the state COVID-19 vaccine website as providing 100% of doses within three days. The goal is 90%.
Minnesota officials on Thursday reported that 599,218 people have received at least first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and that 177,239 have completed the two-dose series.
Roughly 42% of first doses have gone to senior citizens, a group that has suffered 89% of Minnesota's 6,343 COVID-19 deaths — and 23 of 24 deaths reported Thursday.
The state also reported another 907 infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, raising Minnesota's case count to 470,803. However, the positivity rate of diagnostic testing declined to 4%, suggesting less viral transmission.
"We can have hope that we're on our way to ending the pandemic," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
State health officials see the lull in COVID-19 cases as an opportunity to vaccinate as many Minnesotans as possible — especially with the threat of more infectious viral strains emerging in the U.S.
The initial priority group of 500,000 health care workers and long-term care residents will be largely vaccinated by the end of February, so the state has pivoted to a new target group of 1.1 million senior citizens and educators.
Doses are being administered by large health systems but also a scattershot of state clinics in Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester as well as local public health departments and pharmacies.
Only large providers were publicly rated until this week on the state's goals — which include providing 100% of doses within seven days — but now even small pharmacies are listed.
"What gets measured gets done," Gov. Tim Walz said earlier this week.
Hunt's Silver Lake Drug in Rochester has found extreme interest among senior citizens and has so far provided 300 doses to a first-come, first-served waitlist of 1,500.
People started lining up at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, even though their appointments weren't until 11 a.m. After their shots, they sat in a waiting area for 15 minutes to make sure they didn't suffer allergic reactions to the vaccine, or they browsed in the pharmacy while they waited.
The state website lists Hunt's as providing 98% of doses within three days.
"I've been squawking for the last two months, saying 'Give the vaccine to the independent pharmacies, because we're going to get the job done,' " said Hunt's pharmacist and owner Philip Hommerding. "That's what we're trying to prove."
While the state has quickened its rate of COVID-19 vaccination over the past month, Ehresmann said the issue remains the limited supply of federally controlled doses arriving in Minnesota each week.
Another 5% bump in doses is expected next week, but the supply is well short of the state's capacity to provide 400,000 shots per week.
The addition of local pharmacies to the provider pool is a good step, she said. "We are working to include them, more and more, so that people have even more opportunities to get vaccine close to home."
Casey Drug, like many pharmacies across the state, helped with vaccination of long-term care residents first before receiving doses for community members.
Casey said he has felt the urgent demand from patients and had to make the difficult choice to restrict access to people in the pharmacy's service area in and around Chisholm. He also limited vaccine the first two weeks to patients 75 and older at elevated risk of severe COVID-19.
"A lot of people are calling and saying, 'Well, I'm 50 but I have pre-existing conditions,' " he said. "It's tough. We just had to make a hard cutoff."
Minnesota on Thursday reported a COVID-19 death of an Anoka County resident in the 35 to 39 age range. The state on Wednesday also reported a COVID-19 death in a child in the 5 to 9 age range whose infection exacerbated an existing congenital neurological disorder.
However, only 48 of 244,896 known infections in people 39 or younger have resulted in death.
The death rate escalates from 1.5% among known cases of Minnesotans in their 60s to 26% among those in their 90s.
Casey said he hopes to adopt online scheduling next week to reduce the number of calls coming into the pharmacy and calls being placed to seniors eligible for the vaccine.
"Just so our phones can ease up a little bit," he said, "and we can go back to normal and still be a pharmacy."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744