Minnesota employers mandate vaccines, masks for workers as COVID cases rise

A medical official fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Major Minnesota employers and education institutions are imposing mask mandates and vaccine requirements for workers to slow a COVID-19 surge across the country.

The University of Minnesota will require everyone wear masks in indoor spaces on campus starting Tuesday. Cub and Target are telling workers to put masks back on. Allina Health and M Health Fairview announced that employees must get a shot by October, and the University of St. Thomas said students and staff all must be vaccinated by this fall.

For the first time in several weeks, Minnesota reported an increase in vaccinations last week as 30,560 people got their first dose. That's a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous two weeks, when the average was roughly 21,100 people per week.

"We are grateful that people are taking another look and taking action to get vaccinated," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

Minnesota's cases are rising more modestly than states with worse vaccination rates, though 44 counties -- including the entire Twin Cities Metro -- fall into risk categories where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masks regardless of vaccination status.

Malcolm said Minnesota officials are not considering a new statewide mask mandate to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. It would require Gov. Tim Walz to call another peacetime emergency, which he has been reluctant to do.

The U.S. averaged 72,000 cases per day over the most recent seven-day period, worse than the summer 2020 surge, straining hospitals in several states. The spike led hard-hit Louisiana to impose a new mask mandate Monday.

Instead, Minnesota health officials are pleading with unvaccinated people to get a shot. Minnesota was one of the first states to offer $100 Visa gift cards to people who get a vaccine before Aug. 15.

As of last Thursday, 67.2 percent of eligible people had gotten at least one dose, or nearly 3.2 million people. Minnesota health officials said they know of 4,477 breakthrough cases, where a vaccinated person tests positive with the virus -- 0.14 percent of vaccinated people.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced last week a vaccine mandate for clinical staff at VA hospitals. The Biden administration is looking into how and when it can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for members of the military.

The administration will require that unvaccinated federal workers wear masks and face other limitations when returning to the office, said Jeff Zients, a White House adviser.

Asked about private sector vaccine mandates, Zients told reporters "I think you'll see a continued increase in vaccination requirements as people bring employees back to work."