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Walz announces pilot program to vaccinate school workers, the 65-plus

There's a "small number" of doses available.

The state of Minnesota is launching a community COVID-19 vaccination pilot program with a "small number" of doses available for educators, school staff, child care workers, and Minnesotans aged 65 and older.

Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that the pilot program will include nine appointment-only vaccination sites, and will be the "foundation for mass vaccination clinics" once the federal government increases the supply of COVID vaccines. 

“We are building for the future and doing what we can to get more shots to Minnesotans right now,” Gov. Walz said in a statement. “By beginning to serve those age 65 and older, educators and child care workers, we are immunizing for impact. 

"It’s a step in the right direction on this long road to recovery," Walz added. "The federal government has been giving mixed messages on vaccine availability and guidance, and we need them to step up and get more vaccine to the state. When they do, we will be ready. The end of this pandemic is closer today than it was yesterday.”

Walz notes there is a "very limited supply" of the COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota and the state, despite being promised by the Trump Administration, hasn't yet received an increase in doses. Walz has sent a letter demanding the release of federal reserves of the vaccine and for the federal government to buy more doses to be distributed among states.

Those who are eligible for a vaccine will be able to get one as supplies allow through their healthcare provider or at one of the nine community vaccination sites. Appointments are required to get the vaccine at the community sites and via healthcare providers. 

The nine vaccination sites will open as early as Thursday of this week. More information on the locations and how to make an appointment will be available on MDH's website here starting at about noon on Tuesday, Jan. 19. 

School districts will work with their employees to get them an appointment at the state-sponsored pilot sites, while child care programs will be "randomly selected" and will be notified if vaccines are available, the release says.

State officials and healthcare providers are developing a system to let those who are 65 and older to know when they can start making appointments for a vaccine – providers will contact their patients directly, the release explains.

Meanwhile, health officials are working with community clinics to make sure the distribution of the vaccines is equitable and the state's Black, Indigenous, people of color and uninsured have equal access to the vaccine. 

“These new state sites will immediately provide more vaccines to some Minnesotans who are eligible for their shot,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement. “More importantly, this pilot program will help Minnesota continue to build up a broad and multi-channel vaccine distribution system with our local public health, healthcare, and pharmacy partners for vaccine access once the federal government begins shipping a higher volume of doses. 

"Not every Minnesotan can get the vaccine right now, but we will be ready to give a shot to everyone who needs one once we have more doses on hand," she added.

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This plan expands the priority groups who are eligible for the vaccine in Minnesota right now. Previously, vaccines in Minnesota were reserved for healthcare workers and long-term care residents. Last week, the state expanded its COVID-19 guidance to urge providers to start vaccinating Minnesotans who are 65 and older following the federal government changing its guidance to say the same. 

Vaccinating healthcare workers and long-term care residents and staff who haven't yet received a dose remains the state's priority, and these people can still get the vaccine through their workplace or local public health centers. 

Details on Phase 1b is dependent on decisions to be made by the federal government will be "available in the weeks ahead," the release said. 

The decision to move educators up on the list of those eligible for the COVID vaccine comes amid some teachers' unions calling for the chance to get vaccinated before they return to in-person teaching. 

“Educators and childcare workers care for the mental and emotional well-being of our children, and we know that childcare workers are disproportionately women of color, who have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. We owe it to them to support their health and safety,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said in a statement. “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. By making them available to our teachers, school personnel, and childcare providers, we will provide peace of mind as they do their vital jobs.”

Minnesota has been promised more than 624,000 vaccine doses by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of which just over 407,000 have been received by providers in the state, MDH data show.

There have been logistical and administrative challenges with getting people vaccinated in a timely manner, with MPR reporting that among the identified problems are regulations governing who is able to give the shots.

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune reported Thursday that in senior care facilities between 30-60% of staff members eligible to receive the shot are refusing it for now, citing concerns about side effects.

The CDC says any side effects are typically mild and disappear after a few days at most, while allergic reactions are extremely rare. 

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