Next vaccine priority group will be announced within days, Gov. Walz says

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz says he will announce within days the next priority groups to get the COVID-19 vaccine, without waiting until senior citizens are fully vaccinated.

Walz said administration officials are debating whether to make the move once 60 percent of seniors are vaccinated, or 70 percent, or 80 percent. According to health officials, nearly 42 percent of Minnesota seniors have had at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"There are 65-year-olds that are healthy and are simply not standing in line yet. We want them to get it, but we can’t hold up giving it to others while we’re waiting for somebody to decide if they’re going to take it," Walz told reporters in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Walz did not say which groups he would prioritize. Everyone from grocery store clerks to food production workers and younger Minnesotans with medical conditions have said they should be put next in line.

Minnesota is likely to see a large increase in doses over the next several weeks because of manufacturing gains at Pfizer and Moderna, as well as a new single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that's expected to get FDA emergency authorization within a week.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has said it's her goal to offer a first dose to all people ages 65 and older by the end of March. 

Yet the Minnesota AARP raised new concerns Tuesday about the rollout to seniors.

Seniors are "confused and frustrated about why decisions have been made and the system they are left to navigate, and demoralized when their efforts to secure a vaccine come up empty," Will Phillips, the AARP's state director, wrote in a letter to Walz and Malcolm.

Malcolm is scheduled to testify Wednesday at the Senate Aging committee, which is led by Republican senators who have criticized the rollout.

Vaccine production increases

Minnesota could receive a total of 4 million doses by the end of March under production goals outlined by vaccine manufacturers to Congress on Tuesday. The state has received 1.3 million doses to date.

Executives from Pfizer and Moderna told the House Energy and Commerce committee that they would ship 120 million and 100 million doses, respectively, by the end of March. That would be enough to inoculate 110 million people, because the vaccines are a two-shot regimen.

A Johnson & Johnson executive told lawmakers that the company would have 20 million doses by the end of March after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency authorization, which is expected later this week. J&J's vaccine is a single shot, meaning every vaccine produced would inoculate a person.

Minnesota's share of the federal allocation is 1.69 percent. The 4 million doses would be enough to fully vaccinate 2.2 million people, because all but the limited J&J vaccines would require two shots.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy 

Walz said the federal government is providing a longer-range forecast of vaccine allocations, and the state will use that to create a timeline for when more groups will be eligible.

"I know everyone wants to get this (vaccine)," the governor said. "What I want to be able to give you is, everybody in Minnesota can see an approximate date of when they're going to fall into this."

The Walz administration is partnering with 29 community groups to overcome vaccine hesitancy in lower-income and minority populations ahead of the broader rollout.

Some community groups said English-only instructions and mistrust of the government remain barriers.

"That is something we've been fighting against," said Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, or HACER. "We need to tell them it's MDH (the Minnesota Department of Health). MDH is trying to bring you health."

For more information on the state's Vaccine Connector website, click here.