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A reward site offering $100 for new COVID-19 vaccinations in Minnesota debuted Wednesday as the state continued to show signs of a new variant-fueled pandemic wave.

Gov. Tim Walz encouraged unvaccinated Minnesotans to take advantage of the incentive and help boost the state's vaccination rate ahead of events such as the Minnesota State Fair and the start of the K-12 school year in the fall.

"We face a critical juncture in the pandemic," Walz said in a statement. "The Delta variant is pushing cases up across the country, including right here in Minnesota."

The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported five COVID-19 deaths and 936 more coronavirus infections, raising the state's totals in the pandemic to 7,683 deaths and 615,923 known infections.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota also have tripled in less than a month from 90 to 268, while the positivity rate of diagnostic testing for the infectious disease has increased from 1.1% to 4%.

State health officials believe the fast-spreading delta variant is causing 85% of new infections in Minnesota, based on the genomic sequencing of a sampling of positive specimens. An update Wednesday showed that 664 infections involving the delta strain have been identified in Minnesota.

Vaccination activity has increased over the last three weeks, especially as parents respond to appeals to get their children fully vaccinated before the start of school, but only 67.5% of eligible people 12 and older in the state have received at least a first dose. That equates to 3.1 million Minnesotans who have at least received first doses of the one- or two-shot series.

State health officials have said they would like to see the vaccination rate above 80% to limit the opportunities for the coronavirus to spread. Nationally, Minnesota ranks 20th for its first-dose vaccination rate of people 12 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which also tracks doses administered at federal facilities such as the Minneapolis VA Hospital that aren't tallied by the state.

Roughly $2.5 million in federal funding is available for the new $100 state incentive program, which follows an incentive program earlier this summer that tried to sway people with offers of free fishing licenses or tickets to ValleyFair or other destinations. Fewer than 20,000 people signed up for that incentive program, and most selected $25 gift cards.

The budgeted amount means the new incentive is available to the first 24,330 registrants who sign up by the end of Aug. 15. Walz said he would work with the Legislature and nonprofit organizations to seek more state or private funding to continue the program as needed.

Testing in Minnesota has identified 4,477 breakthrough coronavirus infections out of 2.9 million fully vaccinated individuals — a .15% rate that signals to state leaders that vaccines remain protective.

However, federal officials last week recommended mask-wearing in K-12 schools and in counties with high or substantial viral transmission rates, based on evidence of a slight increase in breakthrough cases involving the delta variant.

Businesses and organizations in Minnesota responded this week with new mask policies — with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul requiring that they be worn again in city facilities and recommending that they be worn in all indoor public spaces.

Masks were required in indoor public places in Minnesota under a state mandate that started July 2020 and ended May 2021. A new state mandate is unlikely as Walz no longer has the emergency authority to issue one.

Health care providers also announced vaccine mandates for workers. Children's Minnesota on Wednesday announced its vaccine mandate for workers, which will include some religious and medical exemptions and could take effect as soon as Sept. 7. Duluth-based Essentia announced a similar mandate, requiring workers with some exceptions to get first doses by Oct. 1 and to complete their COVID-19 vaccine series by Nov. 1.