Minnesota vaccine sites administer nearly 2,400 first doses on opening day

Health officials expect to vaccinate 2,400 people at this appointment-only COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota this week. It’s one of nine sites statewide. (FOX 9)

Several vaccine sites swung open their doors for the first time Thursday, marking a new era in Minnesota's fight against the coronavirus pandemic as health officials look to protect people age 65 and older.

The state reported that 2,399 Minnesotans received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on day one in the four vaccination sites. Brooklyn Center vaccinated 849 people, Andover 808, St. Cloud 368 and Rochester administered 374. Five additional clinics will open later in the week in Fergus Falls, Mountain Iron, Thief River Falls, North Mankato and Marshall, Minnesota.

Officials say efforts will move slowly, at least for awhile. Workers at the nine appointment-only sites are only scheduled to vaccinate 12,000 people this week, including 6,000 seniors and a total of 6,000 teachers and child care workers.

Minnesota topped 6,000 deaths from the pandemic on Thursday as it grapples with a nationwide shortage of vaccines. As of earlier this week, 203,839 people have gotten at least one dose in Minnesota.

Critics are questioning why Minnesota is opening the nine vaccine sites instead of distributing shots through health clinics and community pharmacies. Health commissioner Jan Malcolm said it was "certainly the plan" that most people would start getting their vaccine from clinics and pharmacies once supplies increase, but did not offer a timeline.

At the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, anxious seniors lined up before the vaccine site opened at noon Thursday even though they had appointments. Operators said they expected to give 2,400 shots across Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"I am feeling terrific -- very blessed, I guess you could say," said Steve Eckman of Delano, who was the first to arrive. "We’ve got to give this vaccine a chance. It’s absolutely imperative. The community hasn’t taken it seriously enough. This is our chance."

Eckman credited his kids for snagging appointments for both he and his wife Thursday.

Sue Murr of South St. Paul said she waited for about 10 minutes and had no complaints about the vaccine site. She said she had no hesitation about signing up for a shot.

"I have a newborn grandson. My first biological. That’s a big deal," Murr said. "And I have a father in a nursing home and I’m an essential caregiver, so it’s critical to get in. Besides, I want to live a while longer and didn’t want to battle COVID. So I’m very grateful."

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Department of Health announced the pilot program to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to more Minnesotans. The demand for vaccination appointments was so overwhelming, it crashed the registration website.

All 6,000 appointments for people ages 65 and older were quickly filled. Teachers and child care workers, who were notified by their employer if they are selected.

The next sign-up window will open at noon Tuesday. State IT officials have vowed that the next registration period will not be plagued by as many technology problems.

The operators of the Brooklyn Center vaccine site said they could increase the number of shots if Minnesota gets additional supply of vaccines. On Thursday, they planned to have eight nurses give 10 to 12 shots an hour, for a total of 800 over the course of the day.

"We do have a waitlist if we need to go to that, if we either have more doses in the vial or we have no-shows," said Abhi Andley, owner of Homeland Health Specialists, which has a contract to operate the site. "it did come together pretty quickly but that’s why the team brought together the group that it did."

The Brooklyn Center site was using the Pfizer vaccine, which requires storage at ultra-low temperatures.

Some local health care systems say they have already vaccinated a majority of their employees and now they will begin sharing doses with other clinics. But many health care workers who aren't affiliated with a hospital system are still waiting to be scheduled for their first shot.

Health officials say their priority continues to be those in the 1A group -- health care workers and long-term care residents. But after the federal government recommended expanding eligibility to people ages 65 and older, they went along with the guidance.