To ease worries about coronavirus vaccine shortages and overwhelmed appointment sign-up systems, state health officials have this message: Most Minnesotans will be vaccinated at a familiar place, like a doctor’s office or pharmacy.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a while.
Minnesota is currently only allocated about 60,000 new doses each week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is all contingent on how quickly and by how much the vaccine supply can grow,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
When vaccine doses become more widely available, primary care clinics, community pharmacies, local public health departments and other providers will all play a role in distribution.
“We absolutely have a robust infrastructure for vaccination in Minnesota,” Malcolm said. Officials have noted the state was one of a handful consulted by federal officials about distribution logistics prior to the start of the vaccine rollout.
The nine community clinics the state opened Jan. 21 around Minnesota are a pilot program of sites intended to supplement the state’s existing system. Eventually, the state will open more community clinics and Minnesota may also have federally run vaccination sites.
The intent is to provide residents with a number of different ways to get vaccinated.
Sarah Derr, executive director of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association, told a state Senate health committee Jan. 20 that nearly 600 pharmacists have been registered to administer the vaccine and 95 percent of residents live within five miles of a pharmacy.
Derr noted that some pharmacists have expressed frustration with the state Department of Health for a lack of details about their role in the vaccine campaign.
Pharmacists, Derr said, are “signed up, ready to go,” as soon as more vaccine becomes available.
Those details are coming, state leaders say. As more vaccine reaches the state, it will be distributed to registered administrators through a hub-and-spoke model the state introduced late last year.
“There is much much still in-flux in terms of what does that delivery system look like,” Malcolm said. “It is really an all-of-the-above approach.”
LIMITED SUPPLY, OVERWHELMING DEMAND
Since the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer were given emergency approval by federal regulators in December, Minnesota has been promised an estimated 871,650 vaccine doses. Both vaccines require two shots, so that’s enough to vaccinate roughly 436,000 people.
About 522,000 of those doses have been shipped to providers in the state with an additional 150,000 shots reserved for long-term care residents and workers. Health officials estimate about 300,000 doses have made it to providers, and of those, about 264,000 have been administered.
The majority of the doses that have been administered have gone to front-line medical workers who are treating COVID-19 patients. Seniors in nursing homes as well as residents and workers in other long-term care facilities have received much of the rest.
On Jan. 12, former President Donald Trump’s administration opened vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older. They also promised to release all vaccine doses held in reserve, but that didn’t amount to the windfall state leaders hoped for in light of the expanded eligibility.
An estimated 919,000 Minnesotans are age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census. Of the state’s 5.6 million residents, 77 percent, or 4.3 million, are 18 or older.
That’s a lot of people to vaccinate.
At the rate of just 60,000 new doses per week, it would take more than 15 weeks for all seniors to get just one dose of vaccine. Two doses, spaced between three and four weeks apart, are needed for maximum effectivity.
State and federal officials hope it will move much faster.
President Joe Biden wants to administer 100 million doses in 100 days. At that rate, Minnesota could receive enough vaccine to inoculate 2 million people.
Will Phillips, director of AARP Minnesota, praised the decision to open vaccine eligibility to all seniors and urged state officials to provide more information to residents anxiously awaiting details about when they may have a chance to be vaccinated.
“We are hearing regularly from our AARP members who are confused about when and where to get a vaccine and don’t know where to go to get clear and accurate information,” Phillips said at a Jan. 18 news conference.
“Our federal government, state officials and the private sector must work together to be much more clear about when and how to sign up to be vaccinated,” he said.
Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged that confusion during a news conference Friday at a long-term care facility in New Hope.
Walz cited a Kaiser Health survey that found 60 percent of adults were unsure of when or where they’d be vaccinated. The uncertainty is even higher in communities of color.
“If 60 percent of Americans don’t know where they’re going to get vaccinated, that’s because we’re not doing a good job telling them,” Walz said.
A STATEWIDE SYSTEM
The nine pilot program sites health officials set up last week are meant to be one piece of a statewide effort that will grow as more vaccine becomes available. Opening the sites quickly illustrated the overwhelming demand for vaccine in communities large and small and the challenges that creates.
It took less than an hour for the registration system the state was using to be overwhelmed and then taken down for maintenance. At its peak, the website was receiving about 10,000 hits per second, state officials said.
In 10 minutes, the call center was deluged with 200,000 calls.
Nevertheless, about 6,000 seniors were able to register for appointments for their first and second doses of vaccine. Those seniors began getting their shots at the community sites Thursday.
Tarek Tomes, Minnesota IT commissioner, said his agency would work with vender Primary Health to improve the capacity of the registration system for the coming weeks.
For now, state officials expect there to be roughly 6,000 spots available to seniors each week as part of the pilot program. Another 6,000 vaccine doses are being reserved for educators and child care workers and will largely be administered through their employers.
The pilot program is designed to help state health officials identify logistical problems and set the stage for when vaccine is widely available and being administered by a variety of different providers.
When ever that time comes, providers say they’ll be ready.
“At HealthPartners, we know firsthand how important it is to offer a vaccine to every Minnesotan, as quickly and safely as possible,” said Andrea Walsh, CEO of HealthPartners, which serves roughly 1.2 million patients. “We need more supply of vaccine to get that job done.”
Dave Orrick contributed to this report.