REGIONAL— There was an air of celebration last week when Gov. Tim Walz announced that as of Tuesday all Minnesotans age 16 years and older would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations beginning …
REGIONAL— There was an air of celebration last week when Gov. Tim Walz announced that as of Tuesday all Minnesotans age 16 years and older would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations beginning March 30. Yet, the news was tempered by the latest rise in new cases in recent weeks as the b117 variant has gained a greater foothold in the state.
The new expanded vaccination policy makes roughly 4.4 million Minnesotans now eligible for the vaccine, even as it may make wait times longer for some Minnesotans. “It adds to the queue, obviously, as we said, but that queue is not equally spread out in all parts of the state. The thinking behind this is with the large number of vaccines that are coming it gives flexibility, especially to the providers.”
With the expansion, the state skipped over the next groups slated to become eligible for the vaccine, and the news was received less positively among some of those passed over, as a reporter pressed Walz about during the news conference.
“The initial frustration is coming from people who were on the cusp of becoming eligible, healthy 50-to 64-year-olds, younger people with an underlying condition,” the reporter said to Walz. “They are frustrated that now people who they thought were behind them in line are now going to be competing with them.”
Those sentiments were amplified by callers to a Minnesota Public Radio show as they were waiting for the governor’s formal announcement.
“I believe that opening it up to 16 years old and up is going to cause a massive frenzy,” one caller said. “We were so diligent as far as giving the shots out to everybody that needed them, as far as seniors and healthcare workers and teachers and everything like that. Now, all of a sudden, we’re going to open the floodgates. My wife is 62. She’s in excellent health. And now she’s going to be lumped in with everybody else that’s trying to get a shot. What kind of logic is there when somebody does this? If I ran my business this way, I couldn’t get any anything done.”
Walz noted that providers are still encouraged to prioritize vaccinations according to the groupings that have already been established, and that any potential problems will be resolved in just a few weeks because of increasing allocations of vaccines from the federal government.
“The expectation is that they are still in the front of the line,” Walz said. “We have made the line a little longer, but they’re not competing against them. We want to make sure that (providers) are still hitting those groups, but if those folks aren’t there or there’s no demand for it, they move to the next, because there’s a significant increase that’s coming. Those questions will take care of themselves within about the next 21 to 28 days because of the sheer volume [of vaccine] that’s coming. They’re not necessarily competing. We’re telling those providers to still prioritize the groups in that order.”
However, Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm both admitted there is no system to monitor how vaccines are prioritized, even though both have indicated awareness that “line jumping” has been happening since early on in the vaccination effort.
“There is no audit, procedure, anything like that in place now,” Malcolm said. “I think we’re all on the same page about the importance of continuing to prioritize around risk and giving the providers flexibility.”
Walz reported that among educators and childcare workers, who have been prioritized for about two months, 66 percent have been vaccinated. Malcolm said that the number of staff in long term care facilities who have been vaccinated is “in the 50-percent range” and that some healthcare systems have reported vaccination rates of between 50 and 60 percent for their workers. Walz addressed the issue of apparent reluctance among many to get vaccinated.
“There will be a campaign out there to help educate people,” Walz said. “This isn’t about shaming people, it’s letting folks know these are safe vaccines that have gone through the process. There will be a real concerted effort around this – to be candid, this is our next big task over the next three to four weeks, with the volume of vaccines we’re getting.”
Meanwhile, as providers began administering vaccines to all comers on Tuesday, the state reached another significant milestone – one million Minnesotans have now been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the state’s vaccination dashboard, more than 1.6 million people have received at least one vaccine dose, representing 37 percent of those age 16 and over.
Malcolm also emphasized that even though the number of doses expected to be received is increasing, demand will still running well ahead of supply.
“It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to get all the doses they could use next week,” she said. “That will be building up over time.”
Clear evidence of the COVID-19 outbreak in Ely and its schools showed up in the state’s weekly reporting last Thursday.
New cases in the Ely zip code totaled 36, according to the report, the largest one-week increase in the past five months and bringing the cumulative total of cases in Ely to 225.
Outbreaks in Ely, Aurora, and surrounding areas drove the seven-day average case total in northern St. Louis County to 39.8 last week, about the same level and direction as in late October before the massive statewide spike in November and early December. Northern St. Louis County is the only region of the county where the case count average is in the range considered unchecked community spread.