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Minnesota is on pace to fall just short of its goal to provide COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of people 16 and older by July 1 — despite new incentives to boost interest and new evidence that the shots prevent viral transmission and reduce the severity of illness.

Nearly 3 million people 12 and older have received some vaccine in the state, but the seven-day rolling average of new recipients per day has fallen to 6,203. While the pace could pick up, Minnesota needs to provide more than 8,000 first doses per day — just among people 16 and older — to reach its goal.

Gov. Tim Walz chose the goal based on scientific guidance that a 70% vaccination rate would stifle spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. At at event Friday in Rochester, the governor commended people in Olmsted County, where almost 80% of those 16 and older have received vaccine.

"That is exactly what we need," Walz said. "That translates into the inability of the virus to move in our population, the inability of the virus to mutate. [Getting vaccinated] almost absolutely guarantees you are not going to end up in the hospital, and it's as close to 100% as possible that you're not going to die."

Two of three approved COVID-19 vaccines also appear 91% effective at preventing fully vaccinated people from being infected — a question that couldn't be completely answered during clinical trials last year but could be addressed by real-world usage this year.

Researchers in Duluth and seven other U.S. sites tracked effectiveness of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines among health care workers and first responders who submitted to regular testing and found minimal infections or illnesses.

Initial results came out in March, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday issued updated findings with four more weeks of data — including that vaccinated workers who ended up with infections suffered milder illnesses. They also carried less virus in their noses for shorter periods of time, suggesting that vaccinated people might be less likely to spread the virus to others.

"The few illnesses that were documented in partially vaccinated or fully vaccinated individuals were shorter in duration, had fewer symptoms, and a lower viral load — that's what's new here," said Dr. Harmony Tyner, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke's in Duluth, who is part of the research team.

The study started before approval of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and doesn't address its real-world effectiveness.

Walz and health officials noted that a 70% vaccination rate is just an incremental goal in Minnesota, and that they want to see an even higher rate over time to shield the state from COVID-19 and prevent the formation of coronavirus variants that could be more infectious or harmful. The state rate in the 16-and-older age group is 65.2%.

The level of vaccination has already significantly tamped down viral spread — with the state on Monday reporting a record low 2.8% positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing. The number of hospitalizations dropped on Sunday to 243, down from 699 on April 14 at the peak of the latest pandemic wave in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday reported two more COVID-19 deaths and 196 new infections, raising its totals in the pandemic to 7,467 deaths and 602,880 known infections.

Minnesota has been among the fastest states in providing COVID-19 vaccinations — ranking 17th for its rate of first doses provided to people 12 and older.

Walz set Minnesota's 70% goal for people 16 and older in May, shortly before the federal government dropped the age eligibility for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from 16 to 12. Since that time, more than 87,000 Minnesotans 12 to 15 — 30% of that population in the state — have received vaccine.

Vaccination numbers have been declining in Minnesota since mid-April, prompting state leaders last week to announce incentives for 100,000 people 12 and older who receive their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine between May 27 and the end of June. Rewards range from $25 Visa gift cards to free passes to state parks, the Minnesota State Fair, Valleyfair and other attractions. Incentive funding from the CDC will cover some or all of the program.

As of Monday morning, 5,525 people had signed up for incentives, and most chose the gift cards. Roughly 80,000 new vaccine recipients have been reported since May 27, meaning that most of the Minnesotans who received shots in the past week have not yet applied for the rewards.

All vaccine recipients 21 and older are eligible to receive free or discounted beers or other drinks at participating craft breweries and distilleries through a separate reward program announced by Minnesota leaders last week.

Minnesota's overall vaccination total includes more than 2.6 million people who have completed the one- or two-dose series. People are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after they receive their final dose, allowing their immune systems time to respond to the shot and to offer maximum protection against the coronavirus.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744