The COVID-19 vaccine will be available to all Minnesotans 16 and older beginning Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz announced Friday morning.
A statement from the governor's office said Minnesota's most critical goal is getting "as many Minnesotans vaccinated as quickly as possible to end this pandemic," which is showing signs of increased activity in the state again.
"Minnesotans have done a remarkable job helping our most vulnerable get vaccinated and waiting their turn," Walz said in a statement prepared ahead of a live video address at 11:30 a.m. "Now, as we prepare to receive more vaccine heading into April, it's time for all Minnesotans to get in line."
The expanded eligibility means another 1.2 million Minnesotans will be added to the pool of state residents seeking protection from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Several states have already announced plans to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to all, beating the May 1 eligibility goal that President Joe Biden set two weeks ago.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state is on track to beat the deadline, but also is in a race to protect people against the spread of new COVID-19 viral variants that appear more infectious.
"We are in a race between the variants and the vaccine, and we must remain vigilant and work together so the vaccines win," said Malcolm, encouraging Minnesotans to get "vaccinated as soon as you have the opportunity."
Although the state is accelerating the eligibility timetable, vaccine supply still lags behind demand. State health officials said allocations from the federal government are still "erratic," but they hope for growth next month.
Production has not increased as quickly as expected of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which like the two-dose Moderna version is available to people 18 and older. Only the two-dose Pfizer vaccine is available to people ages 16 and 17.
"We've heard different messages about the speed at which the Johnson & Johnson supply might ramp up," Malcolm said.
Minnesota is expecting its current weekly supply of 185,000 first doses — including those going to chain pharmacies under a federal contract — to increase to 304,000 first doses in early April.
"It is definitely an increase in terms of what we have been receiving," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
Minnesota is encountering an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations and diagnosed infections — though it remains unclear whether this is similar to travel-induced blips after Thanksgiving and Christmas, or part of a sustained new wave driven by the spread of more-infectious variants of the virus.
The 345 Minnesota hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients on Tuesday was the highest count since Feb. 6 — though well below the peak of 1864 during the last pandemic wave.
Walz's statement said that Minnesota has reached a key protective goal of providing at least first doses of vaccine to 80% of senior citizens — who have suffered 89% of the state's COVID-19 deaths. Two-thirds of K-12 and child care educators have received vaccine as well.
Malcolm said that vaccinators will be asked to prioritize vaccine for those who are most vulnerable.
"With eligibility being more open it is still going to be the case, though, that certain people are at higher risk and need to be at a higher priority than others," she said.
But removing eligibility restrictions will provide clinics, pharmacies and others with the ability to avoid bottlenecks in the vaccine rollout.
"What we are trying to pair up here is still immunizing for impact and equity but creating more flexibility for vaccinators to be able to just not slow down and not wait for the next eligibility category," Malcolm said.
Providers said there is no lack of demand among the existing eligibility groups. M Health Fairview is still booking all vaccine appointments three weeks out. Olmsted Medical Center alerted 2,400 eligible people Wednesday afternoon to a batch of 500 vaccine appointments, and they were all booked by Thursday morning, said Dr. Randy Hemann, chief medical officer. "It's still a problem with supply right now. We can't keep up to the demand that's out there."
Dr. Abinash Virk said Mayo Clinic would adapt to any new state guidance on vaccine eligibility, but that a switch now would complicate efforts to conduct outreach and make appointments with some of the harder-to-reach people who are at greater risk of severe COVID-19 due to their living situations or health conditions.
"It will make it a little bit harder because we're not done with [those currently eligible] yet," she said. "We have quite a large number of patients in that group. It would be best if we could actually get a little bit farther along in that group."
Minneapolis Public Health has held targeted events for eligible recipients as well as vaccine clinics at public housing complexes where residents often are at elevated risk of COVID-19 but have been harder to reach.
A vaccine-for-all approach could shift some of the city's strategy toward broad vaccine events set up in geographically underserved areas rather than clinics targeted at key groups, Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said.
"We'll need to use a different strategy to reach folks," she said.
So far, 1,475,130 Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That represents an estimated 26.5% of the population.
The shots have gone to the highest priority groups, including health care workers, long-term care residents, the elderly and child-care and school employees.
People with underlying health conditions and front-line essential workers, including public transit and grocery store employees, became eligible two weeks ago.
Under the new eligibility policy, the remaining groups who are next in line for the COVID-19 shot are anyone 50 and older regardless of medical condition, people 16 and older with at least one underlying health condition, essential workers that have not been previously eligible and everyone else who hasn't yet qualified.
Only the Pfizer vaccine has federal approval to be given to 16- and 17-year-olds. Other adolescents and children won't be eligible for the vaccine until clinical trials are concluded later this year and federal officials review safety and efficacy data.
On Thursday, Minnesota health officials announced another 1,857 new COVID-19 cases, the highest one-day total since Jan. 9.
"We do have the potential for another spike in cases," Malcolm said. "Today's case count is an important reminder of how very seriously we have to take this pandemic going forward."
Another 16 deaths were reported by state health officials, including 10 who were residents of long-term care facilities.
Cases and deaths among nursing home and assisted-living residents have plummeted since they were prioritized to receive the vaccine. Most facilities have had two or three vaccine clinics, with 80% of nursing home residents and 85% of assisted-living residents getting two vaccine doses.
But long-term care facility workers have not taken up the vaccine as readily, with 54% of nursing home and 45% of assisted-living workers getting vaccinated.
"We need to encourage staff to increase the protection of all within the community to get a vaccine and we are working hard on that," said Patti Cullen, CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota.
Cullen said more workers are asking for the vaccine as they see colleagues and family members get the shot without suffering negative consequences.
Since the pandemic began in the state more than a year ago, 510,398 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes the disease and 6,814 have died.
Some of the recent case growth has been driven by COVID-19 variants that are more infectious, underscoring the need for vaccines to limit spread of the disease.
"The good news is there is going to be enough vaccine for everybody who wants to get it, and it is going to be much faster than we had earlier thought," Malcolm said.
Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, Utah and West Virginia have already expanded vaccine access to all adults, while Texas and North Dakota will do so on Monday. Michigan's target date is April 5.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.