by CHRIS ROGERS
Even as many seniors are still hunting for scarce COVID vaccination appointments, the answer to a burning question — when can the rest of Minnesotans get vaccinated? — got much clearer today.
Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) laid out their plans for the next phases of vaccine distribution: people with specific, high-risk medical conditions and certain essential workers will be eligible for vaccination beginning in April, and vaccines will be available to the general public by this summer.
The state is nearing the end of vaccinating people in the first priority phase — health care workers and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — and it’s in the middle of vaccinating the next groups — Minnesotans 65 and older, K-12 educators, and childcare workers. Currently, 43 percent of the state’s 65-plus population has received at least one dose, and Walz said 70 percent of all seniors will be vaccinated by the end of March. That projection is based on the amount of vaccine the state is currently receiving from the federal government, though Walz said those shipments are expected to accelerate, calling the end of March “our most conservative estimate.”
Starting in April, people with especially high-risk health conditions will be eligible for vaccination, including sickle-cell disease patients, people with Down syndrome, active cancer treatment patients, immunocompromised organ transplant recipients, and people dependent on supplemental oxygen due to lung and heart conditions, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. Also in April, one category of essential workers will be eligible: food-processing plant employees.
Next, in April and May, state officials said they would expand the eligibility criteria to include a wider variety of health problems and other types of frontline workers. People age 45-64 with one or more of the high-risk health conditions identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would be eligible, and people 16-44 with two or more of those high-risk conditions. The CDC-recognized conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Down syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised conditions, obesity (a body mass index of 30 kilograms per square meter or greater), pregnancy, sickle-cell disease and type two diabetes.
Also in April to May, essential workers in agriculture, childcare, corrections, emergency response, food production, food retail, food service, manufacturing, public transit, and U.S. postal workers will be eligible, Malcom reported. Additionally, people age 50 and older who live in multi-generational housing will be eligible.
In May to June, people 18 and older with any underlying medical condition will be eligible, along with everyone 50 and older, regardless of health status, and workers in the following fields: transportation and logistics, finance, housing and shelter, construction, information technology and communications, energy, media, legal, public safety engineers, and water and wastewater, according to Walz administration.
By summer, the general public will be eligible, Walz said.
“There are some groups we are going to target because of the risk factors involved in the work that they do,” Walz said, explaining the focus on certain essential workers. Meat processing plants, for example, have been a hotspot for COVID transmission. Malcolm said of the focus on particular health problems, “There are some conditions that have particular severe complications when combined with COVID.” The categories of essential workers and health conditions largely come from CDC recommendations, according to the Walz administration.
Walz said that while some seniors may still be waiting for vaccines at the end of March, some will choose not to be vaccinated, and immunizing 70 percent of seniors would mark a point where the state had the capacity to start vaccinating new groups while simultaneously finishing up with seniors. That approach is similar to the state’s ongoing vaccination of seniors while simultaneously finishing up with health care workers and long-term care residents.
Being eligible for a vaccine and actually getting one are two different things, as seniors searching for scarce doses this month have discovered. “Anticipated timelines for phases are subject to change,” Walz’s office wrote, and that timeline is dependent on the flow of federal shipments of doses to the North Star State and the speed of providers delivering those shots. So far, vaccine distribution across the U.S. has taken longer than initial estimates. A CDC committee projected last November it would take just five weeks from vaccine approval to start immunizing essential workers and people with high-risk medical conditions. However, Walz noted that there has more consistent progress on vacccinations in recent weeks. He said that, if anything, he expects the timeline will be shorter than projected, citing federal efforts to drastically ramp up vaccine deliveries and the promise of a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine further boosting supplies. Asked how he can be confident of the projected timeline, Walz pointed to the dependability and growing size of recent federal shipments. “I’m confident because for three weeks in a row now, we’ve been seeing exactly what our allocation is going to be, and not only that, it’s increased …” he said.
Alluding to eating corn dogs at the state fair in August, Walz stated, “That is within our reach if we do things right …. That is the type of thing we have to look forward to.”
More information on the next phases of vaccine distribution are available at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/whos-getting-vaccinated/index.jsp. Click here for the Winona Post’s breakdown of all local vaccination sites. A listing of all vaccination sites in Minnesota is available at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/locations/index.jsp, and Minnesota’s Vaccine Connector, a system to alert people of vaccination opportunities, may be found at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/connector/index.jsp.