Minnesota is transforming buses into mobile vaccine units in hopes of boosting immunizations in communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Staffed to provide up to 150 vaccinations per day, the buses will be dispatched at the request of community groups that want to host vaccine events.
In the process, health officials hope to target ZIP codes identified in federal data as particularly vulnerable as well as agricultural workplaces, homeless encampments and housing complexes where residents lack transportation. Targeted communities include people of color, urban Native Americans and people with disabilities, according to the state Health Department, although buses might also take vaccinations to large workplaces such as factories and food processors.
"Folks who live in high social vulnerability index communities have had a very disproportionate impact from COVID-19," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a Tuesday news conference. "So, this idea of these mobile buses is the next piece of our strategy to get the vaccine into the communities where it is so critically needed."
The retrofitted Metro Transit buses include space for two patients to wait for shots, while two others receive them, said Nicole Nee, a clinician with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Eagan-based health insurer that's staffing the mobile units.
Patients sign in for vaccine at a pop-up tent before climbing aboard. Each immunization takes no more than five minutes, Nee said, so the mobile unit could vaccinate up to 150 people in a day. Curtains hang from the ceiling for privacy.
Two buses are being used this week, and the state plans to add four more in coming months.
One bus has been parked this week in St. Paul outside the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, an African American social services agency in the city's historic Rondo neighborhood. There, health care workers provided about 120 immunizations on Monday.
"I can't imagine a better place to prioritize racial and health equity within COVID-19," Vayong Moua, director of racial and health equity advocacy at Blue Cross, said of the St. Paul outreach. "COVID-19 has not only brought to light but has exacerbated these racial and health inequities."
The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported 1,189 new cases and five more deaths connected to COVID-19. Victims included one person in their late 40s and four others between 60 and 84. Only one lived in a long-term care or assisted-living facility
Since early March, the state has seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases with the spread of a more infectious form of the virus. Over the past week, seven-day averages for new cases have started to decline, a trend that continued with data released Tuesday. But Malcolm said it's too early to say that case growth is slowing.
"The indicators are kind of mixed," she said. "We still are in a very precarious situation. It's all the more important that we get Minnesotans vaccinated as quickly as possible and particularly that we get some of the hardest-hit communities vaccinated as quickly as possible."
The mobile vaccination units will target communities lacking health resources as identified by a social-vulnerability index developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ramsey is one of five counties identified as having moderate-to-high vulnerability, according to the CDC ranking, while Beltrami, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties in northwest Minnesota and Nobles County in southwest Minnesota have a high level of vulnerability.
Just over 2.3 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19 — about 52% of all residents 16 and older, according to state data released Tuesday.
The number of Minnesotans getting intensive care for severe COVID-19 in the hospital continues to rise, even as vaccinations continue and the overall number of people in the hospital for the coronavirus remains flat.
Data published Tuesday show there were 193 people in Minnesota's hospitals receiving intensive care for COVID-19 complications the day before, a rise of 21% from seven days earlier.
Yet the total number of people in any kind of hospital bed getting care for COVID-19 was 686, according to the latest figures, rising 1% in the past week.
Genetic sequencing of test specimens containing viral RNA shows about 70 to 80% of positive COVID-19 tests in Minnesota are coming from variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a Health Department spokeswoman said. Most of those involve a variant that first surfaced last year in the United Kingdom, but Malcolm said that less common variants are quickly spreading, as well.
"We are also seeing literally a doubling of the other variants that we're tracking in the state, week over week," Malcolm said. "We really are still in a race against time particularly with these variants of the virus that are so much more transmissible and may be more dangerous."
Since the start of the pandemic, Minnesota has reported 558,850 cases, 29,282 hospitalizations and 7,031 deaths linked to COVID-19.