REGIONAL- Even as state health officials expressed optimism over a reported doubling of the state’s daily COVID vaccination rate, they doubled down in urging patience. At current rates, …
REGIONAL- Even as state health officials expressed optimism over a reported doubling of the state’s daily COVID vaccination rate, they doubled down in urging patience. At current rates, according to officials, the state won’t have currently eligible groups fully vaccinated until at least June.
The recent change to make vaccines available to those 65 and older and to school personnel and childcare providers added approximately 1.1 million people to the number already eligible.
“With the rate that we currently have, we’re looking at 16 weeks to get through the populations that we need to get through,” said state Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann on Tuesday. “It’s heartbreaking that we don’t have enough vaccines right now and that we don’t have vaccines for everyone. We absolutely just do not have enough vaccine available.”
However, a number of factors could reduce Ehresmann’s time estimate.
A one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration within the next few weeks, increasing availability beyond the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being distributed. Johnson & Johnson’s experience with other vaccines gives them the capability of ramping up production quickly, health officials say, and some have termed the one-shot vaccine a “game changer.”
New goals issued by Gov. Tim Walz to have 90 percent of vaccines administered within 72 hours of receipt by providers has contributed to the increase in daily vaccination rates and facilitated the transfer of unadministered doses from the federal Pharmacy Provider Program to other providers to use.
But while Walz also announced on Monday that three large-scale permanent state community sites would open this week in Duluth and Minneapolis and another next week in southern Minnesota, neither Ehresmann or Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm knew exactly when those sites would open or other operational details when questioned by reporters at Tuesday’s press conference.
St. Louis County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook also had scant information about the Duluth clinic, as it will be operated by the state and not directly connected to her department. Westbrook said her staff is ready to assist with the clinic if asked.
The state health department has also launched a new vaccination locator map on its website featuring more than 100 community-based providers who received additional vaccine doses for seniors this week. While a press release from Walz said people should use the map to locate providers and contact them with questions, most already have waiting lists and established protocols for targeting high-risk seniors, and some are concentrating their efforts on patients 75 and older. The map will be updated weekly as more providers are added to the distribution list.
Meanwhile, online and call-in registrations for vaccination appointments for seniors at nine pilot clinics, including Mt. Iron, have been suspended, as more than 220,000 Minnesotans are now in the pool for random chances to get appointments for 6,000 doses administered weekly at those sites. Those who have received their first vaccine shot at those sites already have second appointments scheduled and should keep them.
With rapidly changing circumstances and multiple groups of providers responsible for different populations, clear communication and coordination can be challenging, Westbrook said.
“There are multiple systems getting vaccine out so it is a coordination not only of resources but communication,” she said. “I’m feeling like we as a public health system are getting enough information but it’s changing so quickly it’s taking time to get that communication out.”
Ehresmann took time on Tuesday to caution people to be wary of scammers who are trying to turn vaccine shortages to their advantage.
Given overwhelming demand for the vaccine, Ehresman warned about scams that are cropping up related to vaccine availability.
“We’ve had situations where someone appears to be calling from the health department where it’s not accurate,” she said. “We do not want credit card or bank accounts, Social Security numbers, any of those things. You want to be on a list with your provider. You want to make sure that you’ve made it known that you’re interested in being vaccinated, but that should never involve giving any of that private information out.”
Westbrook said that changing the eligibility criteria for vaccines resulted in about 40,000 seniors and roughly 5,000 educators and childcare providers being added to the groups being targeted, and she echoed Ehresmann’s remarks about scarcity of vaccine doses.
“I really want to stress that we don’t have enough vaccine for everybody who wants it right now,” she said. “We’ve opened priority groups without increasing supply to meet demand. We’re trying to be more efficient and effective at targeting vaccine and making sure it’s getting out as quickly as possible.”
Westbrook is encouraged that the various measures used to track the severity of the pandemic have declined to levels not seen since early October, before the massive November-December spike, and noted a significant difference.
“That’s when we were seeing our trends going up,” she said. “Now we’re seeing our trends go down. It feels like we’re sitting in a better position, and I don’t want to imply we’re not in a good position, but people need to still be vigilant.”
Westbrook expressed concern about the U.K. and Brazilian coronavirus variants that have been discovered in Minnesota and the higher transmission rates associated with them.
“We as a community should assume that different variants are circulating in our community, and the recommendations remain the same for prevention.”
New cases remained low across the North Country with only six reported last week.
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