The first doses of the new Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday, just days after receiving federal regulatory approvals.
An M Health Fairview facility in southeast Minneapolis took possession of 980 vials, enough to vaccinate 4,900 people.
Other health care providers in the state, including Essentia Health in Duluth, received the vaccine Wednesday as part of a shipment of 42,500 doses coming to Minnesota this week.
State officials are hopeful that the increasing supply of COVID-19 vaccines will significantly bump up the number of Minnesotans who get protection against the new coronavirus.
Since vaccinations began shortly before Christmas, 16.7% of state residents have received at least one dose. Of those 928,963 people, a little more than half have gotten second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Gov. Tim Walz said the speed was important as public health officials are concerned that new, more infectious variants could accelerate case growth.
"We made it a priority that during this golden period of test positivity being lower before variants are starting to be an area of concern around the country, that we get as many Minnesotans vaccinated as quickly as possible," he said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an advantage because it is one and done, no second dose is needed as with the other two vaccines.
"Not having to have them get into another line for the second dose also is a big operational barrier that gets removed with Johnson & Johnson," said Dr. Abe Jacob, chief quality officer for M Health Fairview.
Also, unlike the other vaccines it does not need to be frozen.
"Refrigeration is a big deal," he said. "Not having to worry about the cold chain storage and vaccine wastage significantly improves our ability to get it into communities that have been operationally challenging."
M Health Fairview will start administering the Johnson & Johnson shots Friday afternoon at its southeast Minneapolis site, with the capacity to do 1,000 doses each day, adding the other vaccines into the mix eventually.
Like other health systems, it is contacting patients who are eligible to be vaccinated. It started at a higher age bracket, but soon will make appointments for those 65 and older. M Health Fairview is also working with community groups to vaccinate those who have less access to regular medical care.
State officials are not expecting to get any Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week, although Walz said he expects Pfizer to increase its shipments to help bridge the gap and by mid-March the state should be getting a significant increase.
With more vaccines, low hospitalizations and a decreasing number of deaths, Walz said that state officials are discussing whether to turn some of the dials back to allow for fewer restrictions.
"I'm trying to figure out if we can outrace this thing with vaccinations where we're at before any bump comes," he said. "It is now time to think about what the next steps are."
Bars and restaurants can operate at 50% capacity with a maximum of 250 people, while gyms are limited to 25% capacity with the 250 maximum, among other business restrictions.
Walz said any changes need to take into account the health impacts caused by more people interacting outside private homes. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that some states are opening up too quickly.
Minnesota's case growth is at 13.6% per 100,000 residents, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which measures the rate based on data from one week ago to eliminate variation caused by reporting delays.
But state officials want case growth to be below 10%. However, it has fallen from a recent high of 35.5% on Jan. 8.
Minnesota health officials announced 788 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 17 more deaths related to the pandemic.
Seven of the fatalities were residents of long-term care facilities. So far, 6,507 lives have been lost to the coronavirus.
A total of 486,434 people have tested positive since the pandemic was first detected in Minnesota one year ago.
Diagnostic laboratories reported 20,512 COVID-19 test results to the state Health Department on Tuesday, an 88% increase from the previous day, which reflected lower test volume over the weekend.
Since the pandemic began, 473,252 of those known to have been infected are considered no longer a transmission risk and do not need to isolate.