Gary Koenig considers himself to be one of the "lucky" Minnesota seniors to win the state's COVID-19 vaccine lottery Wednesday.
"That was the surprise," the Maple Lake resident said. "I am happy that I got it but disappointed that my wife didn't."
He was one of about 9,400 randomly chosen from a list of more than 206,000 Minnesotans ages 65 and older who have registered to get the vaccine.
Bob Freas of Woodbury is on the list but no longer needs to be.
He took his wife to a doctor's appointment Tuesday and they were both offered and received the COVID-19 vaccine shots, much to their surprise.
"I walk in there and they basically said, 'Here's your shot,' " said Freas, 76. "It was great."
Some Minnesota health systems, including HealthPartners and Essentia Health, have reached out to some of their elderly patients, offering them the vaccine now that many of their front-line health care workers have been inoculated.
But it does raise questions about the distribution system for Minnesota's seniors, given that some have to wait while others don't.
State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, said at a Senate hearing Wednesday morning that not enough is being done to get older Minnesotans vaccinated at a faster pace.
"The governor has said he is prioritizing our seniors, but I just don't feel that his words match his actions," she said. "Every day that goes by without getting the vaccines into the arms of our seniors is a matter of life and death."
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, defending the state's vaccine policies, noted that nursing home residents were placed at the top of the list and health care workers deserved priority because they provide medical care for seniors.
"The share of the vaccines that are going to 65-plus, you should see that improve quite dramatically as we finish the health care workers and those doses are available to make faster progress," she said.
Feds increase doses
Minnesota is also on track beginning next week to receive 11,000 more doses from the federal government on top of the typical weekly shipments of 65,000 to 70,000 doses.
The state has also received permission from the federal government to reassign 30,000 doses that were set aside for the long-term care facility vaccination program.
Malcolm said too many doses were sent to the program that were not needed. She said that the state would replace the reassigned doses for long-term care facilities if necessary.
"We now have the flexibility to not have it sitting on the shelf for weeks at a time when we can use it faster in the community," Malcolm said.
So far, 301,290 Minnesotans have received at least one of the two required vaccine doses, which represents 5.5% of the state's population.
About 83,000 shots have been given to those 65 and older, who comprise 10% of that group, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Two weeks ago, state health officials encouraged vaccinators to redirect unused doses to those over age 64 and last week the state launched the nine community vaccination sites.
Call center overwhelmed
Interest in those sites was so high that a state website and call center set up to take appointments was quickly overwhelmed. That's when the state turned to a lottery system, in which registrants are picked randomly.
"I lost out. What a deal. It's like the Powerball and Mega Millions in one jumbo dump," said Peter Grant of the Brainerd Lakes area, who was among the many who did not get selected Wednesday.
Grant said that he and his wife can wait for the vaccine because they are both relatively healthy. But he called the lottery "demeaning" because so much is at stake for the health of vulnerable people.
"The sad part would be if indeed the numbers are going to climb there are a number of people who won't make it because access wasn't available to them."
Those who are not chosen to receive shots this week will remain on the registration list and will be eligible for the vaccine in future weeks.
Another 18 COVID-19 deaths were announced by the Health Department on Wednesday, bringing the state's pandemic total to 6,124 fatalities.
All but one of the new deaths were among those ages 70 and older. Ten were long-term care residents. Twelve lived in the seven-county metro area.
HealthPartners said it began notifying its patients over the age of 74 that they can make appointments to get the vaccine.
Dr. Mark Sannes, who is helping lead the COVID-19 response for the Bloomington-based health system, said the organization has some capacity to give shots to patients because its health care workers are often scheduling their shots one to two weeks out, freeing up some doses.
"Even when we we're doing our own employees, we were going to have openings and some vaccine available," he said. "We want to get everybody vaccinated. We just recognize it's not going to be a perfect straight line."
Essentia Health said it is following state guidance, offering shots to Minnesota and Wisconsin patients who are 65 and older, while making them available to its North Dakota patients 75 and older. Patients are chosen at random and are being notified through the health system's online patient portal.
Minneapolis-based Allina Health said it began notifying some patients 75 and older this week who were randomly chosen for the vaccine.
"Because we are receiving limited amounts of vaccine and demand is far greater than supply, we cannot invite everyone in that age category at once," the company said in a statement.
With another 851 confirmed cases announced Wednesday, Minnesota now has 457,317 known cases.
Diagnostic laboratories reported 20,899 COVID-19 test results to state officials.
Minnesota's hospitals were caring for 477 COVID-19 patients. Of those, 97 in were in intensive care.
Most people who need hospitalization have underlying health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension, that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 complications.
Many who get infected have mild or no symptoms, but they still can pass the virus on to others.
Since the pandemic began, 441,740 are no longer considered to be a transmission risk and do not need to isolate.
Staff writers Jeremy Olson and Chris Serres contributed to this report.