Walz to soon announce new COVID-19 vaccine priority groups

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Glenn Howatt, Star Tribune
·5 min read
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Minnesotans with pre-existing health conditions and workers in essential industries should soon learn when it will be their turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Minnesota officials said Tuesday.

A decision could come within a week after state officials make final decisions about the next phase of the rollout, Gov. Tim Walz said.

On deck are around 430,000 workers in essential industries who so far have not been eligible for the vaccine, including those in manufacturing, grocery stores, agriculture, public transit and the postal service.

The next phase will also expand into those with underlying health conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 complications.

Estimates on this population vary widely but could stretch into the millions. About 40% of Minnesota adults have two or more chronic conditions that put them at risk for COVID-19, according to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

These conditions include obesity, diabetes, cancer, chronic kidney disease and heart conditions. Some people with these and other health conditions might have qualified for the vaccine during earlier stages of the vaccine rollout.

But first, the state must decide when to switch gears and move on from the existing priority groups, which include seniors age 65 and older, as well as school and child-care workers.

As of Sunday, 41.8% of seniors had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state estimates. Once that number hits between 60 to 80%, the state may be ready to move into the next phase.

"Then do you pivot and start doing the others and the answer is yes," Walz said.

"There's 65-year-olds that are healthy and are simply not standing in line yet," he said. "We want them to get it, but we can't hold up giving it to others while we are waiting for somebody to decide whether they're going to take it."

AARP Minnesota, which represents 640,000 Minnesotans, said the state's "vaccination rollout has left too many feeling frustrated and confused."

The advocacy group said its members were having difficulty navigating a fragmented vaccine appointment system, with different age requirements and locations that had no vaccine available, especially places close to home.

Of 1,700 members who responded to a questionnaire, 35% had received the first dose and 4% had gotten the second. About 75% had tried to make an appointment.

Minnesota Senate Republican leaders criticized Walz Tuesday after he held an event at a north Minneapolis church to highlight efforts to distribute vaccines to people of color and Black and Indigenous communities.

"I recognize the need for equity in vaccination efforts, but I just cannot understand why Walz and MDH are already presenting plans for expanding vaccination groups when we have just barely begun vaccinating our seniors," said state Sen. Karin Housley, chair of the Aging and Long Term Care Policy committee.

Housley's committee is scheduled to hear testimony Wednesday morning from Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Speaking with community leaders, Walz said Tuesday that Minnesota's distribution strategy was to provide as many vaccination sites as possible, including churches and other locations that have gained trust in the community.

"These are partners that we have been working with for decades, and it makes sense to make sure that they are at the forefront of being part of this vaccination effort," he said at Shiloh Temple International, which is hosting vaccine clinics in partnership with M Health Fairview.

Vaccine eligibility is still limited to health care workers, long-term care residents and other seniors, as well as school and child-care workers.

Malcolm said the next phase of the rollout — officially known as 1b — will come in stages and that state officials hope to provide estimates on when each stage will become eligible.

"It feels good to be getting more dialed in on the next specifics because I know that people have been frustrated by that," she said.

Seniors and workers in schools and child care are considered to be the first phase of 1b, she said.

So far, 762,089 Minnesotans have received at least one vaccine dose, which accounts for 13.7% of the state's population, according to a Minnesota Department of Health estimate.

Two doses have been given to 362,156 state residents, for a total of 1,125,916 shots administered.

Because last week's extreme weather conditions delayed vaccine shipments, Minnesota providers are expected to receive the delayed shipments soon, followed by this week's allotments.

Minnesota health officials announced Tuesday that 513 people in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, along with one new death.

Since the pandemic was first detected in the state last March, 480,091 have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus and 6,434 have died of COVID-19 complications.

The new death was a Rock County resident between the ages of 75 and 79 who lived in a private residence.

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 complications continue to fall. The state's hospitals were caring for 269 coronavirus patients, including 54 in intensive care, as of Monday. That's down from 315 patients a week earlier.

Most people who become infected with the coronavirus experience mild or no symptoms, although they can infect others. Since the pandemic began, an estimated 467,147 of those who have tested positive for the virus are considered to have recovered to the point where they no longer need to isolate.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192