Minnesota set to announce vaccine incentives

·4 min read

Gov. Tim Walz is scheduled Thursday to announce incentives for COVID-19 vaccinations in Minnesota — where 61% of people 12 and older have received at least first doses but the pace of shots has slowed.

The next 100,000 people to seek new vaccinations starting Memorial Day weekend will be eligible to select free passes to Minnesota attractions, sports, fairs and state parks, or free fishing licenses. More details will be announced by Walz in a press briefing at a state park on Thursday, but the incentive program mirrors the use of small giveaways in Maine rather than the $1 million lottery offered to new vaccine recipients in Ohio.

"As Minnesotans are making their summer plans, Governor Walz will announce new vaccine incentives to ensure Minnesotans can enjoy the summer while staying safe and healthy," said Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for the governor.

The approach mirrors what Minnesota has used in other areas of public health, offering incentives such as gift cards for lead screening in children and for the completion of tuberculosis therapy in adults, Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said.

"The incentives ... are of small enough value that they would not be considered coercion, because it's important that people are making their own decisions," she said. "So we really look at incentives as sort of a nudge to get people to move in the right direction."

The number of people receiving at least first doses of vaccine declined from a weekly peak of more than 280,000 in mid-April to fewer than 67,000 in mid-May.

Vaccination numbers have increased since then — with the state reporting more than 122,000 first doses in the past week. However, that uptick was inflated by the overdue reporting of 24,000 shots provided to Minnesotans in North Dakota, the new reporting of vaccinations of Minnesotans in Iowa and the expansion of eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine to people 12 to 15.

More than 62,000 newly eligible teens in Minnesota have received first doses over the past two weeks. Ehresmann said it is "amazing" that 21% of children in this age range have received vaccine so quickly.

Minnesota is on pace to exceed two incremental goals — to provide vaccine to 70% of people 16 and older by July 1 and to meet President Joe Biden's challenge of providing vaccine to 70% of adults by July 4. The state is about 278,000 first doses short of meeting its July 1 goal. However, Ehresmann said Minnesota needs to reach 80% or more to inhibit the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"I want to be done with COVID," she said.

Pandemic measures have improved dramatically in Minnesota, even as it nears 600,000 diagnosed coronavirus infections. The state's pandemic totals are now 7,393 COVID-19 deaths and 599,909 infections — including 12 deaths and 438 infections reported on Wednesday.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota declined from a peak of 699 on April 14 to 364 on Tuesday. The rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions dropped this week below the state's high-risk threshold for the first time since March 21. The positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing — a key barometer of viral activity — also has dropped below the state's caution threshold of 5% and is now at 4.1%.

Minnesota has been targeting socially vulnerable communities with vaccination efforts — seeking to provide shots to people who have transportation or work barriers, or who are at greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness because of their race or chronic disease status.

The disparity in vaccinations has narrowed for some vulnerable groups, indicating that strategies such as the conversion of Metro Transit buses into mobile vaccine clinics are working, said Dr. Nathan Chomilo, Minnesota's COVID-19 vaccine equity director.

"This notable progress is due in large part to an incredible amount of work that has gone into community vaccination events," he said.

The state on Wednesday also announced that a federal vaccination site at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds is providing single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccinations through June 8 to people 18 and older on a walk-in basis.

While targeted strategies are increasing vaccinations in socially vulnerable rural and urban communities, they haven't addressed the poorer immunizations rates in the fringe suburban counties surrounding the Twin Cities. Only 40% of people 12 and older in Sherburne County have received vaccine.

Chomilo said incentives could increase vaccinations in these regions, along with information campaigns to address any hesitancy.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744