Vaccine 'saturation' in some Minnesota counties leads health officials to redirect doses

Coronavirus vaccines

Minnesota health officials are redirecting doses of coronavirus vaccine as some rural counties have more shots than they need to vaccinate their remaining senior citizens.

Ten Minnesota counties have already hit Gov. Tim Walz's goal of getting 70 percent or more of seniors vaccinated. On the other end, 15 counties have not yet hit 50 percent. Statewide, 56 percent of seniors have gotten at least one dose.

"We are working with the coalitions to say, we need to adjust the allocations so we get more to the places geographically that have not had as easy access," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told a Senate committee this week.

Vaccine access in the Metro is quickly improving as health systems increase eligibility to 65 and older because of additional supply.

In the Metro, HealthPartners, Allina, M Health Fairview and Essentia this week expanded eligibility to anyone 65 and older, matching what Walz has allowed since mid-January. The major health systems had all started with an age-75 cutoff because of strong demand.

But for weeks, Twin Cities-area seniors have told stories about driving an hour or more to rural towns where they found available appointments.

Six of the 10 counties that have hit Walz's 70 percent threshold are in northern Minnesota, led by Mahnomen County at 90 percent and Cook County at 88 percent.

Some northern counties are reporting a "saturation" of vaccines and are struggling to find remaining seniors who want a shot, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said.

"There's been outreach and folks are not interested at this point," Ehresmann said. Some people are waiting to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it's a single shot, she said.

Pharmacies are redirecting some Pfizer and Moderna supply to other parts of the state with higher demand, she said.

The seven-county Metro falls more closely in line with the statewide average of 56 percent of seniors getting at least a first dose. But Anoka County is the second-worst in the state, at 39 percent -- slightly more than halfway to the governor's threshold. Isanti County is the lowest, at 38 percent.

Dave Lethert, 87, who lives in Inver Grove Heights, said he found it "impossible" to get a vaccine near his home. Two weeks ago, he booked an appointment at a Thrifty White pharmacy in Waseca, more than an hour away. (LINK TO THRIFTY WHITE APPOINTMENTS:

"I looked everywhere, and no one had any available," Lethert said in an interview. "I went in (to the Waseca pharmacy), got a shot. Sat and waited next to a person from Woodbury who got the shot after I did because she couldn't find any either."

Walz said Wednesday that state officials would closely monitor demand to see where uptake rates were falling short. He said Minnesota would "significantly beat" his original goal to have 70 percent of seniors vaccinated by the end of this month.

At the current pace, the state will hit the 70 percent threshold by mid-March. Walz has placed 44,000 food processing plant workers and 28,000 people with specific high-risk medical conditions next in line.