Minnesota COVID-19 vaccine pace moves ahead of US average, as hospitals backtrack from concerns

Minnesota's coronavirus vaccination pace has moved ahead of the U.S. average, as Minnesota hospitals backtracked from concerns about the state's vaccine rollout.

Minnesota now ranks 20th in the number of people per capita who have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three weeks ago, the state ranked 45th.

Minnesota has given at least a first dose to 556,482 people, state health officials reported on their vaccine tracker website Monday morning. That is 10.1% of the state's population, compared with 9.8% of Americans nationwide who have gotten at least one shot. 

Despite the apparent improvement, Minnesota hospitals publicly broke with state health officials Friday by saying Minnesota's rollout was at an "untenable crossroads"–only to retreat from those comments within 24 hours.

In a letter, Minnesota Hospital Association chief executive Rahul Koranne urged health officials to end a lottery system by which health systems get doses. Koranne said some hospitals had not received vaccines for three weeks, complaining that doses are instead going to Minnesota's mass vaccination sites that he called "out of reach" for many.

"My members are increasingly put in the impossible position of telling their patients and their communities that they do not have vaccines for them," Koranne wrote in a letter to state health officials. "It is not providers who are put into the state's lottery for health care providers; it is patients and communities. The result of this lottery process, as it stands, needlessly brings public trust inall of us into question."

The backtracking started quickly.

After the story broke, a Minnesota Hospital Association spokeswoman clarified that the hospitals didn't want to end the state’s lottery for ages 65 and older–only a separate lottery through which health systems get vaccines. Yet the initial letter criticized Minnesota's mass vaccination sites, one of the ways seniors have been getting shots.

Minnesota health officials appeared to be caught off guard by the criticism.

In a statement late Friday, health officials said they had already told the hospital group about plans to move away from the provider lottery system. They announced they would start routing more vaccines through regional health providers the week of Feb. 15–just as the hospitals were asking.

Health officials also pushed back on complaints that too few doses are going to health systems. They said 52% of Minnesota’s doses have been sent to hospitals and clinics, compared with 10 percent to mass vaccination sites. And they said 53%of doses have gone to Greater Minnesota, where 45 percent of the state's population lives.

On Saturday, Koranne wrote a follow-up letter professing his "sincere apology" to state health officials.

 "I regret taking our concerns to the press rather than seeking a direct dialogue with you," he wrote. 

Through a spokeswoman, Koranne declined an interview request Monday.

More doses for Minnesota pharmacies

The disagreement over Minnesota's rollout comes as vaccines remain in short supply nationwide.

Gov. Tim Walz said in a news release that Walmart and Thrifty White locations in Minnesota will administer more than 16,000 doses this week from the federal government's new retail pharmacy program. Seniors ages 65 and older are eligible for a shot.

The state is also redistributing 8,000 doses to more than 40 Walgreens locations around the state. The doses were overallocated by the federal government to chain pharmacies that are vaccinating in long-term care facilities, Walz's office said.

The additional doses for pharmacies are on top of Minnesota's weekly allotment of 83,825 vaccines from the federal government.

To find a provider near you, click on the state's Find A Vaccine tracker.