Early on in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, many Minnesotans were concerned that their state was lagging as they watched friends elsewhere getting shots. Minnesota was behind states like Florida, Texas and West Virginia in terms of its vaccinations per capita.
Today, Minnesota has pulled ahead of those states and is solidly in the upper middle of the pack, ranking 15th among states and slightly above the national average for share of its population vaccinated. The most recent data show 26.8 percent of Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 24.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
Minnesota is among the top states for vaccination of seniors, with 79.2 percent of people 65 and older having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, compared to 68.8 percent nationally, according to the CDC.
“We still feel really good about the progress Minnesota is making and our performance against those measures the CDC tracks have been holding quite steady,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on a media call Friday.
A gradual approach
Compared to many U.S. states, Minnesota has taken a more gradual approach to administering COVID-19 vaccines. From the get-go, Minnesota’s vaccine rollout plans stuck closely to federal guidelines, tightly controlling vaccine supplies to prioritize the people who were older and sicker, and those who cared for them.
That changed somewhat mid-January, when, under criticism for not moving vaccines quickly enough, the federal government expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone 65 or older. Minnesota opened up the vaccinations, but announced it would not move to the next tier of eligibility until 70 percent of its 65+ population was vaccinated.
When Minnesota hit that mark the second week of March, the state opened up vaccinations for some essential workers and people with high-risk health conditions.
In a televised address earlier this month, President Joe Biden directed states to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May 1. But some states have announced they will open vaccines to residents 16 and older before then — and some already have. These states are all over the map in terms of vaccination pace. Alaska, which opened vaccinations to all adults March 9, ranks second among states for share of population vaccinated. Michigan and Montana, both slightly behind Minnesota, will open vaccination up to anyone over age 16 in early April. And Mississippi, where all adults became eligible for vaccination last week, is among the states ranked lowest for share of population vaccinated.
Minnesota Department of Health officials suggest they aren’t concerned Minnesota will fall far behind as it works its way through eligibility groups: since demand still outpaces supply, they say making all adults eligible sooner could cause a bottleneck for Minnesota where more people are allowed to get vaccines but supply hasn’t adjusted to accommodate them.
Not one-size-fits all
There is evidence that the gradual approach may be working to some states’ favor. An analysis of state-by-state vaccination data by Surgo Ventures and the Associated Press found states that states that rushed to open eligibility quickly tend to lag behind in vaccinating their populations compared to states taking a more methodical tack.
As of mid-March, Hawaii and Connecticut had the smallest shares of their adult populations eligible for vaccination of any state, at less than a third, yet had some of the highest rates of their populations vaccinated.
Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Ohio, by contrast, where two thirds or more of adults were eligible for vaccination, had smaller shares of their populations vaccinated.
Experts told the Associated Press that the demand surge that accompanied widespread eligibility overloaded vaccination systems, with crashed websites and jammed phone lines leading to confusion and frustration.
There were exceptions to that rule though, as some states with more widespread vaccine eligibility have managed to vaccinate their residents quickly. South Dakota, where 60 percent of adults were eligible for vaccination in mid-March, has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
The Associated Press analysis found that just under 60 percent of Minnesota’s adults were eligible for the vaccine and the state was near the middle in vaccine allocation. Wisconsin, with about 40 percent of its adult population eligible, was similar to Minnesota in its vaccination progress.
The lesson here is that there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach, said Jennifer Tolbert, Director of State Health Reform at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Some largely rural states with higher shares of their populations vaccinated , like the Dakotas and Oklahoma, tend to have fewer vaccinators and most of their residents clustered in population centers.
“It may actually be a little easier to vaccinate people, especially if you’re doing it on a county basis,” Tolbert said. “You have some counties with only 500 people or a thousand people — if you can address any potential vaccine hesitancy issues, you can fairly quickly vaccinate those individuals.”
As the vaccine rollout continues, states are working to build up the capacity to administer vaccines quickly to wider swaths of their populations becoming eligible, but Tolbert expects to continue to see some variation in states’ vaccination pace, especially as supply and demand start evening out and vaccine hesitancy becomes more of an issue.
“As we move through this process, there may be additional steps that states will need to take to get those folks sort of over the hump, just to address their concerns, to eliminate the barriers,” Tolbert said.