Minnesota planning to expand COVID-19 booster eligibility to all adults this week

Minnesota will expand COVID-19 booster eligibility to all adults by week's end regardless of whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes that step.

The move is necessary because Minnesota is dealing with one of the nation's worst virus surges, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Tuesday afternoon. Federal action to expand booster eligibility is likely by Friday. Some states haven't waited and have already made declared of their adults eligible.

"We are concerned enough about the surge and our own data suggest that breakthrough cases are growing – not unexpectedly," Malcolm said. "The data are so compelling on the value of boosters to increase that protection, that we think it’s quite urgent to move."

Under the CDC’s current guidelines, booster shots are currently recommended for people ages 65 and older, people ages 50-64 with underlying conditions, any adult at an increased risk for exposure because of where they work, and anyone 18 and older who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But the feds have been under increasing pressure to authorize boosters for all adults to curb rampant virus spread across parts of the country.

Minnesota’s outbreak was the worst in the nation on Monday, while only Michigan was ahead of Minnesota on Tuesday. Northern states are dealing with surges now, flipping the map since southern states dealt with outbreaks this summer.

The state's seven-day positivity rate is above the worrisome 10 percent threshold for the first time since early December 2020. Because hospitalizations lag cases, the spike will push Minnesota's already-strained hospital staffing further.

As of Tuesday, 1,348 people were hospitalized with the virus, the highest number this year. Hospital capacity has tightened in the past week, Malcolm said. Just 1 percent of staffed hospital beds and 2 percent of staffed ICU beds in the Twin Cities metro are currently available, she said.

Gov. Tim Walz, who is in Europe in a trade mission, does not plan to cut his trip short but has scheduled a Wednesday morning news conference from Finland to address the COVID situation. Speaking to reporters on Friday before leaving for Europe, Walz predicted that the current outbreak would "prove the worst of the surges" so far during the pandemic.

The outbreak is again hitting Minnesota schools hard.

South Washington County Schools has temporarily put some classrooms in distance learning because of staffing shortages, especially substitute teachers. Administrators said on any given day, the district has 100 unfilled teacher and paraprofessional positions.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, says all districts are short on substitutes, teacher aides, bus drivers, or cafeteria staff.

"We have almost what I would call a crisis situation in terms of our staff shortages," Croonquist said in an interview. He said school administrators are constantly revising contingency plans "to be ready to respond on a day-to-day basis in terms of how they are going to cover their classrooms and how are they going to be able to get through each day."

Administrators are filling in for teachers, parents are volunteering for lunchroom shifts, and the state is trying to streamline the process of recruiting and hiring substitutes, Croonquist said.

"There's only so much you can do, and there's only so much pool of labor available," he said, adding that distancing learning was a "last resort" but on the list of options for districts.