Minnesota vows slow-moving COVID-19 vaccine rollout will quicken

Minnesota health officials say that the state's slow-moving coronavirus vaccine rollout will speed up in January and vow that every willing health care worker and long-term care resident will get a shot by the end of the month.

Minnesota has used just 37 percent of its vaccines so far, ranking 22nd among all states, and behind three of its four neighboring states, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC data indicate that health care providers and pharmacy companies have vaccinated 83,884 Minnesotans after receiving 229,675 vaccines. For comparison, the state has an estimated 500,000 health care workers and long-term care residents in the top-priority group.

Across the country, the CDC estimates that 4.6 million Americans have now been vaccinated, falling far short of the 20 million goal set by President Donald Trump's administration weeks ago. 

The rollout was complicated when federal officials cut how many vaccines would be allocated to states in mid-December. Minnesota saw one of its Pfizer shipments cut by more than 40 percent.

Minnesota health officials also required a week of training in mid-December before vaccines were administered. Facing criticism that the state's rollout was too slow, Minnesota health officials pushed back Monday.

"The bottom line is the vaccine process, as complicated as it is, is ramping up as quickly as can be done safely," health commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. "And we do expect that pace will increase."

South Dakota has used 62 percent of its vaccines, the highest percentage in the country. Among other neighboring states, North Dakota has used 57 percent, Iowa has used 48 percent, and 32 percent in Wisconsin.

Kansas has the nation's lowest usage percentage, at 15 percent, followed by Georgia and Arizona at 16 percent.

"Being 22nd in the nation is unacceptable," state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said in an interview. Benson chairs the Senate Health committee and has scheduled a hearing next week to look at the state's rollout.

"There’s a lot more questions and this has sort of gotten to be a pattern. They’re not being transparent and up front with us," Benson said. 

Benson questioned why state health officials didn't finish training until after the vaccine had arrived. 

Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said the state had decided to wait for final guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure proper training while some states "decided to simply start giving shots."

"I think it’s important for you to know that Minnesota is on track," Ehresman said, "and the patterns that we’re seeing here in terms of our administration are very similar to those in other states -- particularly other states of the same size."

Ehresmann said hospitals are vaccinating workers who are also jugging patient care. Workers' shots must be staggered in case some miss work because of low-level side effects from the vaccine. In long-term care facilities, only one vaccine -- from drugmaker Moderna -- is being used, and most pharmacies only started vaccinating in the facilities last week.

Minnesota expects to get 33,100 Pfizer doses and 32,700 Moderna doses over the coming week, Ehresmann said. She said the federal government was only providing allocation data one week at a time after getting "burned" for giving rosy estimates early on, only to cut them back.

Gov. Tim Walz's administration now expects the state's vaccine rollout -- the largest in Minnesota history -- to cost $134 million. The federal government is expected to pick up some of that cost, but state officials don't yet know how much.

Last week, the Walz administration and lawmakers allocated $40 million to fund the vaccine rollout.

Ehresmann said she had not heard of any vaccine being wasted or spoiled in Minnesota, like a Wisconsin pharmacist who was arrested last week for allegedly spoiling more than 500 doses on purpose over the Christmas holiday.

Asked about how many eligible people are refusing vaccines, Ehresmann said the state didn't have data but some nursing home staff have expressed concern. On the other hand, "residents are very eager to be vaccinated," she said.