See more of the story

More than 11,000 people in Minnesota have signed up on the first day of availability for $100 COVID-19 vaccine incentives, which health officials hope will boost the state's immunization rate amid coronavirus variant concerns.

The incentive is available to anyone receiving new vaccinations since July 30 in Minnesota, which ranks 20th among states for its COVID-19 immunization rate but still has about a third of its eligible 12 and older population unvaccinated. The 11,280 sign-ups are out of 28,700 vaccine recipients this month, and more appear around the corner.

Laura Johnson, 70, of St. Paul, couldn't get her four grandchildren — ages 18 to 21 — to get their shots, but that changed Thursday.

"Now they're calling me to say, 'Grandma where do I go?' " she said. "Before, it was me trying to convince them to go."

COVID-19 levels bottomed out in Minnesota earlier this summer, but are increasing because of a fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota has tripled from 90 three weeks ago to 270, and the positivity rate of diagnostic testing for the infection has increased from 1.1% to 4.2%. The state's caution threshold for widespread viral transmission is 5%.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported another 878 diagnosed infections and five COVID-19 deaths, raising the state's pandemic totals to 616,784 infections and 7,688.

Response to an earlier state vaccine incentive program was underwhelming in June, when fewer than 20,000 people sought free fishing licenses or passes to ValleyFair or other destinations in exchange for new vaccinations. Most people who signed up sought $25 gift cards offered in that program.

The new incentive is supported by federal funding and was urged by the White House, which cited research out of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggesting that $100 would entice up to a third of unvaccinated people to get their shots.

Nearly 3.2 million people in Minnesota have received at least first doses of the one- or two-shot COVID-19 vaccine series — amounting to 67.7% of the eligible 12 and older population. Weekly vaccination numbers were declining until mid-July, when they started to increase amid concerns about the delta variant and calls for parents to get their children vaccinated before the start of the next school year.

Interest in the incentives "coincides with an encouraging uptick in vaccine rates in the past week," said Devin Henry, a spokesman for Minnesota's COVID-19 response. "The 58,000 doses administered over the past week are up 41% from the week prior."

Vaccination coverage varies by age in Minnesota, where more than 91% of people 65 and older at greatest risk of severe COVID-19 have received at least first doses. The first-dose rate drops to 43% among Minnesotans 12 to 15, and varies by region as well. Olmsted County has the highest first-dose vaccination rate among people 12 and older of 81%, while Clearwater County has the lowest rate of 41%.

The coverage level needed to stifle transmission is unclear. While the state had set an interim 70% vaccination goal, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann last week said she would like to see rates well above 80% to try to limit viral spread.

On Wednesday, Dr. Gregory Poland, director of Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group, offered a more pessimistic view that lower vaccination rates have allowed the spread of more infectious variants, and said that it might take unlikely rates of 90% or more to slow viral spread.

Full federal approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine could happen by early September, he added, and that could sway people who view it as experimental as long as it is only approved under emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson versions also have emergency approval for now.

Poland said the COVID-19 vaccines are the most studied in history and that safety concerns in the public are myths or are so small that they are outweighed by the risk of "a raging pandemic with a highly transmissible variant."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744