Minnesota officials say COVID-19 vaccine lottery will be re-evaluated

Minnesota's health commissioner declined to commit to opening the state's lottery system next week for seniors to sign up for a coronavirus vaccine, as state officials signal major changes are ahead in the vaccination effort.

The state's nine pilot vaccination sites will be re-evaluated as health officials plan to send more doses to clinics and pharmacies to deliver shots closer to patients, Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

More than 226,000 people ages 65 and older signed up for just 9,400 available slots during Tuesday's registration period. Most went on a waiting list, and they could wait several weeks at the current pace of vaccinations. The pilot sites have drawn mixed reviews; some have complained about the distance they’ve had to drive from home.

"I don't want to get out ahead of myself here," Malcolm said, when asked if the lottery system would open again next Tuesday. "We will be using that waiting list for more purposes than just the lottery, so to speak. It’s going to be a way for us to know who wants vaccine, where are they."

Minnesota health officials are racing to get as many shots into people's arms during a lull in the coronavirus outbreak. The state's seven-day positivity rate dropped to 4.9 percent Thursday, below the 5 percent threshold of concern and the lowest it's been in months.

Thursday, the state health department said 320,347 people have gotten at least one dose. Reporting lags by three days. Roughly 10 percent of the state's residents age 16 and older have gotten a shot. Neither vaccine is approved for younger children.

At least 11.1 percent of people 65 and older have gotten a shot, totaling 92,033 seniors, according to health department data.

Health officials said most people -- even seniors -- will ultimately get their shots at their doctors' office or a local pharmacy. To date, a vaccine shortage from the federal government has prevented more doses from getting to clinics and pharmacies.

Starting next week, Minnesota expects to get 11,000 extra doses a week from the federal government.

At the same time, Malcolm said the state would be done vaccinating Phase 1A health care workers by the end of January and assisted-living residents in the first part of February. That will free up more doses for the next priority group of seniors, teachers and child care workers.

"The intent is to push most of the doses out into the community delivery system -- the clinics, the community pharmacies," Malcolm said. "We’re going to evaluate the role the state sites play, how many of them should there be, what should be the schedule for that."

Some health systems are already using doses to vaccinate seniors. Allina and HealthPartners are vaccinating patients who are 75 and older. 

HealthPartners reported this week there had been an "influx" of appointments made over the weekend by people who were outside any priority group who had gotten invite links forwarded to them. The health system was canceling appointments for anyone who didn't qualify.

Malcolm and Gov. Tim Walz took a tour of the state's vaccine site in Brooklyn Center, which opened Thursday for 800 appointment-only shots a day.

Walz got an earful from people who said they were grateful for the state's progress or were unhappy with the slow pace of vaccinations.

"Hallelujah, it feels like Christmas, Easter and everything," one woman told the governor after getting her shot.

Said another, who noted that she had helped get Walz elected: "Governor, I need a shot for my 94-year-old mom. Can you help me out?"

Walz said he was thankful that the federal government has given Minnesota and other states a three-week guarantee of the number of doses they'll get, which he said will allow clinics and pharmacies to plan their own vaccination schedules.

"Some are fine, some are madder than heck that it’s taken as long as it has or everything around COVID," Walz told reporters about the people he had met inside the vaccine site.

Walz, who served in the Minnesota National Guard, said he had been offered a vaccine by the Veterans Administration but planned to get a shot during the normal process. He predicted that his turn would come in March or April, but Malcolm stepped in and suggested it could be May.

"Ever the optimist," the health commissioner told Walz.