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Minnesota wants to hasten vaccination of workers at high risk for COVID-19, adding a permanent state vaccine site in Mankato and two temporary events targeting agriculture and food plant workers in Worthington and Marshall.

Gov. Tim Walz wants 80% of eligible people 16 and older vaccinated, because that could stifle growth of an infectious disease that has caused the hospitalizations of 26,661 Minnesota residents and 6,782 deaths in the state.

With 79% of senior citizens having received shots, state officials said they want to make gains in other vulnerable groups so they can expand vaccine eligibility next month.

"We need broad community protection before we are able to rein in COVID-19 and get back to the many normal parts of life we all have missed," said Walz, who remains in quarantine through Thursday after contact with a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.

Food plant workers became eligible for vaccine March 10, along with others in high-risk occupations and non-elderly adults with health conditions that exacerbate COVID-19. In total, 3.5 million Minnesotans are eligible when including health care workers, seniors, long-term care residents and educators.

Two-thirds of K-12 and child-care educators in Minnesota have received vaccine.

While there are only 47,000 food plant workers targeted for vaccination, health officials consider them a key group — especially after an outbreak last spring at the JBS pork plant in Worthington left Nobles County with the nation's highest case rate in the pandemic and disrupted the food supply. Health officials also found that many of those workers lived in multigenerational housing, passing the virus to vulnerable parents or spouses who then spread the virus at other workplaces.

An event at JBS on Friday provided shots to 1,500 of its workers while public health clinics have given first doses to 15,500 more food processing workers in Minnesota.

Vaccination progress

Overall, the state on Monday reported that 1,430,349 people have received COVID-19 vaccine and that 850,829 people have completed the series either by receiving two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna versions or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson version.

Based on federal population figures, that means 40% of eligible Minnesotans 16 and older have received vaccine and 23.8% have completed vaccination.

The state received another hopeful sign Monday when its daily COVID-19 situation update contained zero deaths for the first time since April 13. The number comes with caveats, including that daily COVID-19 reports have always been lower on Mondays and reflect when investigations are complete rather than when deaths occur.

It also comes amid signs of rising pandemic activity in Minnesota, which reported 1,152 newly diagnosed infections — a high total for a Monday — bringing the state's total case count to 506,376.

The positivity rate of diagnostic testing also increased to 4.5%, inching closer to Minnesota's warning threshold of 5% for significant viral spread.

The number of Minnesota hospital beds with COVID-19 patients reached 318 on Sunday, up from a low of 210 on March 6 but below the peak of 1,864 on Nov. 29.

Health officials have said Minnesota is in a race between vaccination and the spread of new, more infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2 such as B.1.1.7, which caused a COVID-19 outbreak centered on youth sports in Carver County.

Declining compliance

Health officials also are concerned about declining compliance with mitigation measures, perhaps due to vaccination, COVID-19 fatigue or spring restlessness.

Mobility levels based on mobile device monitoring had been 30% below normal in mid-February in Minnesota but rebounded to 12% below normal, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state. The share of people who always wear masks in public declined from 79 to 75% in the same time frame.

Rising vaccine supply should help. Minnesota expects to receive 185,000 first doses per week right now, but expects an increase to 304,000 first doses per week in early April — including doses distributed under federal contract to major chain pharmacies.

Walz and state officials hope by month's end to update Minnesota's timetable for groups waiting for vaccine eligibility.

Who's up next?

Possible next priority groups include all Minnesotans 50 and older and workers in other occupations with exposure risks, including media, legal, water and energy plant workers. Current eligible occupation groups include agriculture, food service, the judicial system, postal service and public transit.

Workers are asked to bring proof of employment to state and community vaccine events to verify their eligibility.

Minnesota ranks 16th among states for its per-capita rate of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, but the state has been less aggressive when it comes to eligibility.

Michigan on Monday expanded access to all people 50 and older and intends by April 5 to expand to all people 16 and older.

Walz said he has been hesitant to expand to groups at less risk of severe COVID-19 when vaccine appointments are full with people at greater risks.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744