Minnesota health leaders say state's vaccine progress better than figures suggest

Minnesota is lagging behind national vaccination rates, but MDH leaders say this is because it's holding 2nd doses in reserve.

Minnesota's health leaders say that national tables showing how quickly states are vaccinating people for COVID-19 do not tell the full story of Minnesota's progress.

Tables, such as this one by Bloomberg, show Minnesota to be toward the bottom of the states in terms of confirmed vaccinations, but in an interview with MPR News, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Minnesota Department of Health Director of Infectious Diseases Kris Ehresmann say there are significant differences between how Minnesota is approaching the vaccine compared to other states.

Ehresmann said that one thing that Minnesota is doing that some other states are apparently not is ordering second doses ahead of time and holding those in reserve for Minnesotans due to get their second shot.

As a result, Ehresmann said this makes it appear as though Minnesota is "sitting" on vaccine supplies when in reality it's just making sure enough are available so those who received their first shot can get their second in the timeframe recommended by manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna.

This, Ehresmann said, isn't being taken into account when data is presented by the likes of the CDC. She said that based on conversations with partners elsewhere in the country, not all other states are approaching vaccine distribution in this way.

Another reason they say Minnesota appears to be lagging behind is because Minnesota has prioritized vaccinating healthcare workers and long-term care facility staff and residents first, and the state has a higher proportion of both relative to other states in the U.S., owing to its major healthcare industry and its larger elderly population.

"Our vaccine allocation [from the federal government] is based on our total state population, and is not based on those specific populations," Ehresmann said.

Malcolm added: "We're actually doing a much better job getting those shots in arms than it appears compared to the numbers."

Demand significantly outstrips supply

Toward the tail-end of the Trump Administration, federal officials said the government would be releasing the vaccine reserves it was holding for second doses, telling states to go ahead and give more people their first doses rather than holding some back.

However, it emerged soon after that the federal government didn't have any vaccine reserves at all, prompting a furious reaction from, among others, Gov. Tim Walz.

It's for this reason that Minnesota has not seen its vaccine allocation increase as planned.

Further problems remain in terms of the federal allocations, with Malcolm saying Minnesota only finds out on Tuesdays how many vaccines it will be receiving the following week, which doesn't give the state or healthcare providers much time to schedule Minnesotans who are prioritized for vaccine appointments.

The Centers for Disease Control has so far allocated 871,650 doses of vaccine to Minnesota. Of those, 522,975 doses have been shipped to Minnesota healthcare providers and a further 153,300 have been provided to the federal long-term care vaccination program. 

As of Jan. 21, 247,415 Minnesotans had received at least one vaccine dose, while 63,185 had received two.

Malcolm noted that while the state figures show that Minnesota has received 676,225 vaccine doses so far, the data doesn't break down what stage of transit they are in – given they have to be shipped to providers across the state – how many have been reserved for people needing their second doses, and how many have been allocated for upcoming appointments for those due to get their first dose.

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There has been frustration over the availability of the vaccine. Last week, the state started offering appointments to those aged 65 and over as well as education workers. However, a limited supply of just 6,000 doses meant the state's booking line and the website was overwhelmed.

While it is expected to announced a revamped booking process either Monday or Tuesday, Ehresmann said that demand for vaccines is expected to significantly outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.

"We are getting doses out quickly," she said. "The total doses promised from the CDC includes second doses and that makes it look like there's quite a few doses available, but some of those are reserved.

"We're in a total mess of mismatched enthusiasm with undersupply of vaccine, we just don't have the vaccine to meet the demand."

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