Nearly 50% of eligible Minnesotans 16 and older have received COVID-19 vaccine, but state leaders said it will take new, targeted strategies to avoid a vaccination wall and get the state to its 80% goal.
Gov. Tim Walz toured Workabilities Inc. in Golden Valley on Thursday as 300 workers and clients with developmental disabilities received their second doses of COVID-19 vaccine. While mass vaccination sites continue, Walz said some people need local opportunities to receive shots in places they know and trust.
"Making it as easy and barrier-free as possible for people to get [vaccine] will get us there," he said.
Walz has made three public appearances in the last week at vaccination sites to encourage people to seek shots amid a third, growing pandemic wave fueled by more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The state reported 11 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and 2,736 infections — one of the highest single-day infection totals since the decline of the last wave in December.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota inpatient hospital beds increased from a recent low of 210 on March 6 to 699 on Wednesday. A state coordinating center has arranged 41 patient transfers because of lack of bed space in Minnesota hospitals in the first two weeks of April, compared with five in all of March.
The daily number of COVID-19 deaths has not increased at the same rate — raising hopes that vaccination has protected the most vulnerable Minnesotans — but the current wave looks like the beginning of the severe wave last fall, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
"We're hoping we don't see that exponential explosive rate of growth," she said, "but we're getting closer to it."
The growth is occurring despite nearly 2.2 million people 16 and older receiving vaccine in Minnesota and nearly 1.5 million completing the one- or two-dose series.
More than 84% of senior citizens have received vaccine — a key target group that has suffered 89% of Minnesota's 6,989 COVID-19 deaths. Minnesota ranks in the top five among states for its vaccination rate of seniors.
The lingering question is what happens in the next vaccination phase after shots have already been given to the die-hards who stayed up at odd hours or clicked furiously on their computers to snatch up the initial, elusive vaccine appointments.
Bigfork Valley Hospital in northern Minnesota is among the handful of small, mostly rural providers that stopped making weekly requests for more COVID-19 vaccine doses because its waiting lists dried up. In a town of 400 people, the hospital has administered 1,900 doses — including to eager recipients driving from the Twin Cities.
After seeing dwindling interest among adults, the hospital in late March requested the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to offer to local high school students because it is the only version permitted for people age 16 and 17. The hospital hasn't requested any more first doses since the first week of April, even though only 47% of eligible people in all of Itasca County have received vaccine.
"A lot of them say they either have received it already or they will very quickly tell you, 'No thank you,' " said Heather Bibeau, Bigfork Valley Hospital's director of outpatient pharmacy and COVID-19 vaccine coordinator.
Statewide, Minnesota officials said demand continues to exceed vaccine supply — especially with a pause on use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week while federal authorities review blood clots that occurred in six out of nearly 7 million U.S. recipients.
None of the six are Minnesotans, but the state has sent details of a similarly suspicious case to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System for consideration, state Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said.
The state on Thursday reported that 561 people had tested positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated — which means it had been at least 14 days since their last dose — and that 66 required hospitalization and six died.
Ehresmann said at least 153 were asymptomatic and caught through routine COVID-19 testing at locations such as nursing homes. The people who died ranged in age from 69 to 92.
Ehresmann said the vaccines are remarkably protective — the breakthrough cases represent about 0.05% of Minnesota's fully vaccinated individuals — but don't prevent all infections or severe illnesses.
While the breakthrough cases shouldn't undermine confidence in vaccination, Ehresmann said they do underscore the importance of getting to the 80% vaccination goal and achieving a level of herd immunity that stifles the spread of the virus.
"We need to have the vast majority of the population vaccinated to reduce transmission to levels that allow us to control the virus," she said. "Not everyone who is vaccinated will be protected."
State leaders urged continued mask-wearing and social distancing in public as another reliable strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The state has tallied 29 infections related to a regional youth wrestling tournament that was moved from Rochester to Sioux Falls, S.D., last month because of Minnesota's austere COVID-19 requirements for large events.
Video footage of the tournament showed no masks worn by some wrestlers or among clusters of fans in the stands.
Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744