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Minnesota's positivity rate of diagnostic COVID-19 testing dropped to 4.3%, the lowest rate since July 1 that underscores the state's opportunity to vaccinate more people at a low point in the pandemic.

The decline was reported by the Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday along with 24 more COVID-19 deaths and 669 newly diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. The rate, an average of testing results in the seven days ending Jan. 25, represents a sharp decline from a peak of 15.5% on Nov. 10.

The state on Wednesday also reported that 458,651 people in Minnesota have received at least the first of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and that 122,597 of them have completed the series. The state estimates that 2.2% of the total population has been vaccinated, although the vaccine is only approved for people 16 and older.

The Health Department on Wednesday issued an appeal to health care workers to indicate interest in vaccination as the state seeks to complete the 1a priority group of these workers as well as long-term care staff and residents.

The state has started to vaccinate teachers and senior citizens in general while completing this priority group — though this has created some angst among other high-risk groups who are still waiting. People younger than 64 with underlying health conditions have expressed concerns about not being prioritized sooner, along with some non-health care workers whose jobs require a level of face-to-face contact that increases the risks of viral exposure.

Vaccine supplies remain limited in Minnesota, which receives weekly shipments allocated by the federal government. The state has received access to 889,575 first and second doses of the vaccine so far.

Infection numbers in congregate care settings have declined in recent weeks, and state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said that could be a sign that vaccination of residents is having an impact.

"One day or one week doesn't mean a trend," she said. "So I guess, even when things seem positive, we can't take cred too early. We have to wait for a few more days and weeks but right now the trend is exceptionally positive."

Performance data showed continued progress under a federal contract through which CVS, Thrifty White and Walgreens provided vaccine to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. This is a subset of the broader category of congregate care, which includes addiction treatment facilities and other forms of group housing.

Thrifty White is now exceeding the performance standard set by Gov. Tim Walz of providing 90% of vaccine doses within three days of receiving them. CVS and Walgreens are not meeting this standard, but their own data show that they have conducted vaccine clinics in all assigned nursing homes. CVS reported vaccine clinics in 92% of its 478 assigned assisted-living facilities as well.

Residents of long-term care facilities have suffered 63% of COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota due to their age and underlying health conditions. That includes 14 of the deaths reported Wednesday. The state also reported a COVID-19 death in a jail, one involving a group home resident and eight involving people who lived in private residences.

The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to inpatient beds in Minnesota hospitals dropped to 379, below the peak of 1,864 that occurred on Nov. 29 during a second wave of viral spread.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744