Gov. Tim Walz and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty received COVID-19 vaccine shots Tuesday to boost public confidence and interest — though that was hardly the issue for many Minnesotans on the first day in which everyone 16 and older was eligible.
Social media was atwitter Tuesday with Minnesotans venting about a lack of available doses, sharing tricks to gain access on pharmacy websites, and struggling with their consciences over whether to lie about their health to secure appointments.
While Tuesday's expansion added only 900,000 people to an existing pool of 3.5 million, Walz said he knew it would create a surge of interest in vaccination against a pandemic that has caused 517,881 diagnosed infections and 6,836 COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota.
"Minnesotans [will need] a little bit of patience, but there are numerous streams of vaccine," said Walz before receiving his shot at a vaccination event at the Minnesota Vikings practice facility in Eagan.
The urgency for vaccination was underscored Tuesday by an increase in the positivity rate of diagnostic COVID-19 testing in Minnesota — from 3.5% on March 3 to 5.2%. While that is above the state's caution threshold for viral spread, public health leaders are hopeful that aggressive vaccination will reduce the number of infections that result in severe illness or COVID-19 deaths.
Tuesday's expansion created confusion, though, because there aren't enough doses to meet demand — even with next week's state supply increasing to 211,800 first doses and pharmacies receiving more doses through a federal partnership on top of that.
Many newly eligible Minnesotans found that local medical providers and pharmacies had doses but were still prioritizing them for people such as senior citizens who are at elevated risk of severe COVID-19.
"So is everyone here lying to meet the eligibility requirements? No judgment," one woman asked on the Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, which has swelled to 52,000 followers and counting.
"It appears so — and I'm sort of judging," one replied.
"Isn't everyone 16+ eligible now?" another replied.
Walz announced the vaccine eligibility expansion Friday to offer flexibility, because some rural providers were running out of recipients among the initial priority groups that included senior citizens, long-term care facility residents, health care workers and K-12 educators.
The governor said people shouldn't lie about their health or occupations to obtain vaccine, but he stressed that there is nothing wrong with seeking and taking appointments when clinics or pharmacies make them available.
"Take the shot," he said. "You're not cheating anyone else out of it."
While some large medical groups are continuing to prioritize doses for the highest-risk patients, others simply haven't had time to change their appointment websites to reflect the new open access.
"CVS.com will update its eligibility in accordance with guidance from state and federal officials," according to a statement from the national pharmacy chain. "In some cases, the announcement may be made before eligibility opening up on CVS.com."
Walz, 56, engaged in political humor as the Democrat received his shot in his left arm while the Republican Pawlenty, 60, received his shot in his right arm. Single doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine were injected in their arms during the promotional event and then into the somewhat larger deltoid of former Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson.
Pawlenty sidestepped questions about Republican criticisms of Walz's pandemic response, stressing that there is universal agreement over the vaccine's importance.
"Getting vaccinated is not just Minnesota nice, it's Minnesota smart," Pawlenty said. "It's what we need to do to make sure the hopeful light at the end of this COVID tunnel keeps getting brighter and bigger each day."
Minnesota is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 activity, and Walz said he was shocked by comments this week from the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about "impending doom" if the U.S. doesn't remain diligent in efforts to prevent viral spread.
The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to Minnesota hospital beds increased from 210 on March 6 to 357 on Monday — though that growth has leveled off in recent days and doctors are reporting younger patients with more favorable outcomes when compared with the prior pandemic waves.
Walz said viral activity is increasing because of the spread of more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but it's possible this won't convert into more serious illnesses and deaths because so many high-risk individuals have been vaccinated.
"The question we're asking: How much impact has the vaccine made by taking the most vulnerable out of the risk pool?" Walz said. "And how much difference does it make by still masking up?"
Health officials are concerned that spring break travels and decreased mask-wearing and social distancing could fuel viral growth. The rate of Minnesotans who always wear masks in public has slipped from 79% in mid-February to 74%, according to survey data published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state.
Minnesota on Tuesday reported that 1,637,771 people have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 1,003,316 have completed the series by receiving two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer versions or a single J&J dose. Roughly 37% of eligible Minnesotans 16 and older have received at least a first dose.
Jane Gustafson of Forest Lake was vaccinated weeks ago because she is older than 65. However, she expected tough competition Tuesday as she sought to make an appointment for her daughter — a mother who had COVID-19 last fall and worried about the risk of another illness to herself and her children because of the viral variants.
Instead, within minutes, Gustafson had an appointment at a vaccine event at a curling club in Eveleth, Minn., and decided to drive up with her daughter on Wednesday.
"She … would love to have things get back to some semblance of normal," Gustafson said.
Caleb Cox, 42, of Minneapolis, had a medical condition that qualified him for a vaccine appointment when he searched on Friday. The data scientist had been worried about waiting until Tuesday when so many more people would be vying for appointments and wanted to be fully vaccinated in time for a friend's June wedding.
Cox kept thinking it was a mistake on Friday when he found an appointment at Walgreens available to him, but felt better later in the day when the governor expanded access to everyone 16 and older.
"I sort of relaxed and realized that I didn't cheat," he said. "I didn't jump the line."