Curt and Patti Kaler were happy when they reached the end of their appointment-booking process for a COVID-19 vaccine and discovered they were getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine — the one they wanted.
"For us, not having to commute a second time was a bonus," Curt Kaler said from the road last week, midway through his three-hour trip from the Kalers' Lakeville home to a Walmart pharmacy in Marshall.
Other Minnesotans are starting to shop more selectively, as President Joe Biden recently pledged to make all U.S. adults eligible for a vaccine by May 1.
Despite the oft-repeated public health advice that people should get whatever vaccine is first available to them, some vaccine-seekers are using online tools like vaccinespotter.org to locate a specific brand at a retail site. Some public sites, like the Dakota County vaccine page, also list vaccine availability by brand.
Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann acknowledged that there's value in someone obtaining the specific vaccine they want, even if it takes a few extra days to get it.
"The public health goal is that every person who can possibly get a vaccine gets it at the first second they possibly can," Ehresmann said in an interview. "But it's not just a numbers game. People need to feel comfortable about the vaccine they are receiving."
Sheila Ehrich, 71, also of Lakeville, said her doctor advised her to take the Moderna vaccine because of slight differences in clinical data for a complication called Bell's palsy, which Ehrich experienced after a past vaccine during a stressful time.
Officially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people with a history of Bell's palsy can take any COVID vaccine. But the agency can't yet rule out vaccines as the cause for a handful of Bell's palsy cases in the clinical trials. Fresh reports will be studied closely.
So Ehrich contacted the son-in-law of a close friend to help her find the Moderna vaccine. That person was Luke Hellier, a city council member in Lakeville who Ehrich said has become the "vaccine connector" at their church, especially for those who lack internet access.
"I said I have to have the Moderna vaccine. And he said, 'Oh, that's doable,' " said Ehrich, who got her first Moderna shot days later at a public site in Dakota County. "I am thrilled. I was almost in tears. … I'm going to be able to go see my grandkids."
Latest virus trends
Vaccinations are helping to ease social restrictions across the state.
Effective at noon Monday, Minnesotans can hold indoor gatherings of up to 15 people, go to church or the salon without occupancy limits (while remaining socially distant), and fill restaurants and bars up to 75% of normal capacity.
The total number of probable and confirmed cases in Minnesota grew by 997 on Sunday, bringing the state's total to 497,392 since March 6, 2020.
Despite the easing of social restrictions, confirmed case counts are rising again. Minnesota's seven-day average hovered between 700 and 800 cases per day for three weeks straight, but then jumped into the 900s last Tuesday.
The state Health Department reported five new deaths from COVID-related complications Sunday, bringing the total to 6,746. Those who died were between 65 and 99 years old, two of whom lived in long-term care or assisted living.
Meanwhile, nearly 708,000 Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated, which is 20% of the state's vaccination target.
Three different COVID-19 vaccines are authorized for general use in the U.S. So far, Johnson & Johnson accounts for 1.9% of the 1.9 million individual doses of vaccine administered in Minnesota. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine makes up 50.9% of the doses, and the Moderna vaccine accounts for 47.2%. The state's first shipments of J & J vaccine doses were logged on March 4.
In testing, the three vaccines performed equally well in preventing death — none of the vaccinated patients in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of patients died from complications of COVID-19. None of the deaths following vaccination since then in CDC's adverse-event reporting system have been linked to taking a vaccine, CDC spokeswoman Martha Sharan said.
The J & J vaccine had 66% efficacy in preventing lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 after the single shot was administered in a placebo-controlled trial. The two-shot Pfizer vaccine had 95% efficacy in preventing symptomatic, lab-confirmed cases of the illness in people who had not previously been infected, and the two-shot Moderna vaccine had 94% efficacy in that setting.
In Minnesota, the group with the most confirmed cases of COVID are people ages 20 to 24, who had 49,000 cases but just three COVID-related deaths. People ages 85 to 89 have seen the most deaths — about 1,275 — among 6,400 cases.
The J & J product confers its protection faster — two weeks after the single dose. Pfizer and Moderna offer full protection two weeks after the second dose, which must be taken three weeks to a month after the first dose. CDC says Pfizer and Moderna doses should not be mixed.
None of the vaccines contain live virus, eggs or preservatives.
John Hoeschen, a pharmacist and owner of St. Paul Corner Drug, said he's gotten calls from people seeking the J & J vaccine because they're allergic to a component in the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines called PEG, or polyethylene glycol.
"Up until now, everything I've given is Moderna. But what's coming from the feds tomorrow is Pfizer," Hoeschen said Wednesday. Aside from allergy problems, "no one has turned down an appointment because it is the wrong vaccine."
Roman Catholics, who make up about 22% of Minnesotans, may have moral considerations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which cannot set binding policies for parishioners, says the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines used abortion-derived stem cell lines during research, while J & J used such cell lines in research and production.
Because of that, Catholics who have the ability to choose should avoid J & J, the bishops' group advised, but no one should avoid vaccination completely since it serves a greater public good. That message was recently sent to bishops around the state, who may communicate it further.
Minnesota officials have acknowledged that some people are thinking of avoiding the J & J vaccine. With TV cameras rolling, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm pulled up her sleeve and got the J & J shot on Wednesday to make a public statement.
"I did particularly want to get the Johnson and Johnson … vaccine," Malcolm said. "I was eager to demonstrate my confidence in this vaccine."