Minnesota 'very close' to vaccinating all health care workers; feds will send more doses

Minnesota and its federal partners will soon have vaccinated 10 percent of Minnesota adults against the coronavirus while the state grapples with a supply shortage as it races to end the pandemic.

At least 301,290 people had gotten at least a first dose, the state reported Wednesday, though the number is higher because reporting lags by three days. There are 3.8 million Minnesotans ages 16 and older, the eligibility age for a vaccine.

Minnesota is "very close" to the end of the 1A phase of health care workers and long term care residents, health commissioner Jan Malcolm told senators Tuesday morning. All people in this first phase will be scheduled for shots by early February, she said.

"The share of the vaccines that are going to 65+, you should see that improve quite dramatically as we finish health care workers and those doses are available to make faster progress in the 65+ population," Malcolm said.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden's administration plans to release 16 percent more vaccines to states each week for the next three weeks. The increase was expected because of manufacturing improvements at drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, and administration officials tempered expectations Wednesday.

"We are taking action to increase supply and increase capacity but even so, it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one," Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the COVID-19 response, told reporters.

Minnesota's share is 11,000 extra doses a week. The state had been averaging 65,000 a week in January.

Officials in Minnesota and other states have routinely blamed the federal government for a vaccine shortage, and have said it will take months to vaccinate each new priority group if supply does not improve.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is giving states a three-week guarantee of the doses they'll get. Until now, it's been week-by-week.

The small, short-term boost in supply will not solve Minnesota's backlog immediately.

During Tuesday's sign-up window for the state's vaccine lottery for people 65 years and older, 226,244 Minnesota seniors registered. That's 25 times more than the 9,425 shots made available for the program this week.

People randomly chosen for an appointment will get a call, text or email Wednesday. They were required to respond by 5 p.m. to get a slot, or their appointment was released.

Minnesota is opening 10 appointment-only vaccination sites around the state on Thursday, including a new one in St. Paul exclusively for teachers and child care workers. An estimated 15,000 people got appointments at that site.

The Biden administration has signed new contracts with Pfizer and Moderna for 200 million more doses in the third quarter. Along with existing contracts, the U.S. is set to have enough supply to vaccinate all Americans over the age of 16 by late summer or early fall.

By far the slowest to use available doses are the pharmacies vaccinating in Minnesota's long-term care facilities. Taken as a group, the three pharmacy chains have used less than 50 percent of their allotment. By contrast, Minnesota hospital systems are all using at least 62 percent of their doses -- and many are above 90 percent.

One issue the pharmacies are running into: an uneven uptake rate among long-term care residents and staff. While 80 percent of residents at skilled nursing facilities have taken the vaccine offered to them, only 45 percent of staff have done so, according to a MDH survey.

"It is a concern," Malcolm said. But she said the uptake rate is improving as a second round of clinics are being offered and staffers are watching co-workers not suffer adverse reactions to the vaccine. "We fully expect to see that uptake continue (to improve)."

Minnesota officials say the Biden administration has granted them power to take unused vaccines from pharmacies that are running vaccination programs in long-term care facilities. The federal government has required states to set aside doses for the program.

"Everyone now agrees that was overallocated," Malcolm said. "There were more doses set aside and locked up than were needed for that population."

Some senators raised concerns that Minnesota would not be focusing all of its doses in the coming weeks on seniors.

"Seniors again feel like they’re not being prioritized when they see younger, healthier people getting the vaccine ahead of them," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, who chairs the Senate Aging committee. Housley pointed to the teachers who are in line to get a shot this week.