843,000 Minnesotans registered on state's Vaccine Connector, senators want data sharing limits

A key Minnesota Senate committee advanced legislation Wednesday limiting how health officials use personal information on the state's Vaccine Connector website.

More than 843,000 people have registered with the online tool in hopes of finding a COVID-19 vaccine. State officials have been promoting the website, which launched in mid-February, to alert people when they become eligible.

The website prompts people to enter their contact information, date of birth, job, any underlying health conditions, and some demographic data. Health officials say the data collection is necessary, while some Republican senators are raising concerns.

"I regret going on the Connector because I'm not sure if my data's going to be private," said state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center. "It's nobody's business."

The Senate bill, sponsored by Health committee chairwoman Michelle Benson, would ban the Minnesota Health Department from sharing any personal data without a person's consent. 

The measure would require health officials to destroy all data by June 2022 at the latest. A person could make a written request to have his or her data wiped immediately.

In a letter to Benson this week, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her agency collects the information so it can determine eligibility and connect people with opportunities for a shot. The department's policy is to retain personal data for 6 months after a person is fully vaccinated, she said.

The department shares data with other state agencies and vendors that help run Minnesota's vaccination operations. But there are limits on how the data can be used, she said.

"When individually identifiable Connector data leaves custody of the public health system, there are processes in place to protect the data and make sure these data are only used for the intended purpose of connecting people to vaccine opportunities," Malcolm wrote.

The issue is part of an international debate over data privacy during the pandemic. Governments around the world have launched sign-up tools to get information about outbreaks, testing and vaccines to people. 

It comes as Gov. Tim Walz prepares to announce later this week a timeline for when the rest of Minnesotans will become eligible for a vaccine.

Right now, nearly 3.5 million Minnesotans are eligible for a vaccine. Slightly fewer than 1.5 million have gotten at least one dose, which is more than 26 percent of the state's population.

Benson, the Senate Health chairwoman, said the personal data is turning off some people from registering on Minnesota's website and creating a "barrier" to getting them vaccinated.

Democratic lawmakers say the data collection is necessary to find out where the vaccine rollout is falling short in certain communities. 

State Sen. Melissa Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington, pointed to data showing 91 percent of Minnesotans who have received a vaccine are white, 9 percentage points more than their share of the state's population.

"We need to be taking active measures to understand why that is and do things about it," Wiklund said.

Minnesota prioritized senior citizens ages 65 and older because most hospitalizations and deaths have happened among that age group. The state's senior population is overwhelmingly white.