On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz announced anyone over the age of 16 in Minnesota would, as of Tuesday, March 30, become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination.
The announcement that vaccines would be widely available is a departure from the plan the administration outlined a month ago to continue a more phased approach.
All of which means a lot more Minnesotans will be eligible to be vaccinated in less than a week. Here’s what you need to know about the decision — and what it means for those who haven’t yet gotten a shot.
So how many more Minnesotans just became eligible for the vaccine?
The state has rough estimates of the number of residents in each of its phases and tiers of eligibility. Those already eligible total about 3.5 million people, and the state vaccine dashboard says that 900,000 residents are now fully vaccinated and 1.5 million have had at least one dose.
Of the groups remaining that become eligible Tuesday, there are estimated to be 1.15 million people, though some of those people might have already been vaccinated under other criteria or vaccinated in other states.
How fast can the state vaccinate all those people?
As Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said repeatedly during Friday’s announcement, the expansion of eligibility only allows people to get in line; it doesn’t guarantee them a vaccine in the near future.
The state has been averaging 330,000 vaccine doses per week for the last three weeks, an amount that is expected to hold steady through the first few days of April. Beginning with the week of April 5, however, the state’s supply is projected to increase to 424,000 doses per week.
Even those numbers are estimates, however, based on communication between the state and the federal government, and don’t include vaccines set aside as second doses for those who have already received their first dose of the two-shot regimen of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
If the federal governments were to ramp up supply, Malcolm estimated that — among pharmacies, health systems and public health facilities — as many as 500,000 shots a week could be administered in Minnesota, even more with the addition of state-run pop-up clinics and vaccination events.
Why expand eligibility if there wasn’t even enough vaccine for everybody who was already eligible?
While the decision to include younger, healthy people who don’t work frontline jobs in this latest round of eligibility has frustrated some who assumed they would have priority in vaccination, Walz and health officials said it would give providers more flexibility in administering the vaccine.
In cases where doses are expiring or at-risk people have already been inoculated in larger numbers, for instance, health providers will now be able to reach out to a bigger pool of people.
At the Friday announcement, Dr. Abraham Jacob, the chief quality officer of M Health Fairview, gave an example: “We would frequently run into circumstances where we could vaccinate a 65-year-old Latinx, but we couldn’t vaccinate their 61-year-old otherwise healthy spouse. Now we can vaccinate both and that makes sense to us when we think about the risks.”
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said families will now be able get appointments together, regardless of age. And Walz suggested the younger people gather their friends and roommates go to appointments together.
So how long will it be before most people in Minnesota are vaccinated?
To achieve what’s termed herd immunity, where the virus has limited ability to spread in the general population, the state is aiming to have 80 percent of Minnesotans vaccinated. That could happen quickly once the state gets its expected supply of 424,000 doses per week: as soon as four to six weeks. Said Walz on Friday: “The story of waiting in line will be gone in four weeks.”
How can I get an appointment to get the vaccine?
There are several ways: You can sign up with the state’s Vaccine Connector website. After filling out some information about yourself, the state can send you information about potential vaccine appointments. The state runs its own vaccine clinics and selects people through the vaccine connector to get inoculated. If chosen, you will be contacted via text, email or phone.
You can also sign up for a vaccine appointment online at the pharmacy chains Walgreens, Hy-Vee, Thrifty White, Walmart, Cub, Costco and Sam’s Club. You can check websites of those pharmacies directly, or you can scour several vaccine locator sites, run by the state, federal government or third parties.
The Minnesota COVID-19 Vaccine Spotter collects open appointments with frequent updates and includes links to sign up for shots. The Twitter account Minnesota Vaccine alerts (@mnvaccinealerts) automatically tweets when new openings are available in the state.
Your health care provider may also contact you to schedule an appointment as they move through patients based on COVID-19 risk and vaccination guidelines. And if you’re an essential worker, your employer may also reach out to you with a vaccine opportunity.
If I was previously eligible or in a priority vaccination group, will I get my shot ahead of others?
Even though every adult will be eligible, Malcolm told reporters that state officials and health care providers are still prioritizing people based on their age and risk. Older people, for instance, can be expected to get higher priority than younger people and essential frontline workers will still get priority over people who can work remotely.
Jacob, Chief Quality Officer for M Health Fairview, said they’ll continue to focus on people most at risk of contracting the disease or having a severe case of COVID-19.
It appears to be a different picture at pharmacy chains. Malcolm said pharmacies “weren’t really set up” to prioritize certain patients, which means that anyone eligible for a vaccine will now likely be able to sign up at a pharmacy at the same time as people higher on the priority list.
Is there any effort to allocate more vaccines to the metro area?
Administration officials said Friday that geographic, racial and other equity measures play a role in the distribution of vaccines across the state, but vaccine appointments tend to fill more quickly in the Twin Cities metro — or anywhere near it — than they do in parts of Greater Minnesota.
Malcolm said the state is tracking the percent of eligible populations vaccinated down to the county level and having conversations about allocations each week.
But while the state can ask pharmacy chains to ensure more of the doses are sent to areas of high demand, the state can’t require it, Malcolm said. “We can request it, we can suggest it, we don’t actually have the ability to tell them to move this many doses there,” she said.
Was the fact that young people are responsible for much of the spread of COVID-19 right now a factor in expanding eligibility?
Health Commissioner Malcolm said addressing the spread of the virus by young people wasn’t in the state’s “explicit calculus,” but said it would be helpful that young people will be able to be vaccinated.
“The more we can get vaccines into the places in the community where we are seeing spread, whether that’s geographic or certain age groups, the better,” she said. Of note, she added, was that the expansion of eligibility will now allow all parents of school-age children to be vaccinated.
What about people who don’t want to get vaccinated?
After getting the vaccine to everyone who wants it, the state will have to confront a second public health challenge: convincing those who have avoided getting it to do so.
Among the so-called vaccine-hesitant are those who are ideologically opposed; those who want to wait to gauge the effects on vaccinated populations; and those who don’t think they need it or want to let others get in line ahead of them.
“There will be a much-more visible campaign about getting vaccinated now,” Walz said. “It didn’t make sense to run that campaign when we had so many people waiting in line. There wasn’t a hesitancy — at least you couldn’t see it — because vaccines were getting out.”