Minnesota is expanding COVID-19 vaccine access to nearly a third of its population, adding adults with a range of chronic illnesses and workers in key front-line occupations.
The move comes as the state has almost reached its goal of providing vaccine to 70% of senior citizens who are more likely to suffer severe COVID-19 illnesses and deaths.
Gov. Tim Walz said supplies have been boosted to the point that Minnesota should be able to offer vaccine to everyone in this new group of 1.8 million people by mid-April, while still wrapping up vaccinations of the initial priority groups of seniors, long-term care residents, educators and health care workers.
"Minnesotans, we're close," Walz said Tuesday. "Get your vaccine when you get a chance. … You're on the cusp now. You should be getting it very soon."
Walz said Minnesota is progressing toward the goal of vaccinating 80% of people who are eligible, which could stifle the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and allow more social activities to resume.
As of Tuesday, 1,086,936 people had received some COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota, and 602,623 had completed the series either by receiving two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, or a single dose of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The governor talked on Monday with Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter about whether it will be safe to allow fans in the stands for the April 8 opener at Target Field, and with Minnesota United executives about prospects for their first home match April 17.
Countering the vaccine progress is an increase in Minnesotans with COVID-19 who test positive for a more infectious variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the respiratory disease. The state is investigating a cluster of at least 114 cases tied largely to sports and fitness activities in suburban Carver County and has confirmed that 29 involve a B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in England. Results of genomic sequencing of samples from another 32 cases in that cluster are pending.
"We're trying to balance this race on the vaccine versus a variant," Walz said.
The state is expanding vaccine access to its next two scheduled priority groups, but asking medical and pharmacy providers to start with the first group, which includes 28,000 people 16 and older with medical conditions at high risk for COVID-19 complications. Conditions include sickle cell disease, Down syndrome and lung and heart conditions requiring supplemental oxygen. People being treated for cancer or with weakened immune systems following organ transplants also qualify.
This group also includes 44,000 workers at food-processing plants, several of which were sites of large outbreaks in spring and summer.
Vaccinating this group will stabilize food production and slow viral spread because some workers are in the country illegally and afraid to seek testing or miss work when sick, said Rodolfo Gutierrez of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research.
"Workers in the meatpacking plants are being infected without letting us know that they are, because they are in fear," he said. "They are afraid of losing their jobs."
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm predicted it might take two weeks to vaccinate this entire group, because the people with high-risk conditions have close contacts with medical providers, and food plant workers might get shots at workplace events.
As a result, the state is simultaneously expanding access to one of its biggest priority groups yet of 1.7 million people — which includes people with underlying health problems ranging from diabetes to obesity to heart conditions. Adults 45 and older with one qualifying condition are eligible, as are people 16 to 44 with two such conditions.
This next group also includes workers in key industries who are at heightened risk of viral exposure. That includes airport security, food servers, police officers, mail carriers and bus drivers.
Minnesotans 50 or older in multigenerational housing also qualify due to the heightened risks of viral spread in such living situations.
Weekly vaccine allocations from the federal government suggest that it could take four to six weeks to vaccinate this group, Malcolm said.
The 30% of Minnesota seniors who remain unvaccinated could include skeptics, or people who got shots while wintering in other states, or people in better health who wanted to let others go first.
Some might be homebound or confused by the sign-up process. State health officials are considering mobile and drive-through vaccination sites as easier ways to connect with such harder-to-reach people.
"To seniors yet unvaccinated, you are still the top priority," Walz said, but he added that the expansion was necessary to make sure available doses are used quickly.
The governor didn't specify timing for any relaxation of state restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, but said he is considering switching to a regional or county-specific approach that adjusts to flare-ups in COVID-19 and hot spots of viral spread in Minnesota.
While 11% of Minnesotans have completed COVID-19 vaccination, less than 7% are considered fully vaccinated, which means it has been 14 days since they received their final doses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday advised fewer restrictions on fully vaccinated people, including that they could meet indoors with one another with no masks or social distancing.
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.