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Vaccine Rollout Expansion: 35,000 Doses Going To Seniors, Available At Hospitals, Local Clinics

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that the state is shifting gears in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout this week, offering significantly more doses to seniors, who will be able to get vaccinated at local providers near where they live.

More than 35,000 doses will be available to Minnesotans ages 65 and older this week, the governor's announcement said. Seniors will be able to get vaccinated at over 100 clinics, hospitals, vaccination sites and other locations. Appointments will be available through local healthcare providers.

An online vaccine finder was launched Monday by the Minnesota Department of Health to help seniors learn where they can go to get inoculated. Officials say the vaccine finder will expand over time as more resources become available. It will eventually serve all Minnesotans.

"Our seniors have seen the worst of COVID, and it's absolutely vital we get them the shots they need to stay healthy and safe," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, in a statement. "Today we're putting vaccines directly in their communities and helping them find where they can get their shot. We need to ensure we're protecting those most vulnerable to severe illness, and we're directing healthcare providers to make that happen."

With an increased supply of COVID-19 vaccines, the state is phasing out its pilot program that operated 10 community vaccination sites and is instead using an all-of-the-above approach, utilizing local healthcare providers as well large-scale community sites. According to Walz, most Minnesotans will receive the vaccine through local health care providers in the coming months.

"We have long planned for most Minnesotans to get vaccinated in the places they are used to getting their health care – places like smaller clinics, local hospitals, and community pharmacies," the governor said, in a statement. "But not everyone has a doctor or pharmacy they're familiar with. That's why we've built up a reliable network of different ways Minnesotans will be able to access the vaccine. After careful planning, we're now activating that network to give Minnesotans options close to home."

Those without access to a doctor or pharmacy will be able to get vaccinated at two large-scale, permanent community vaccination sites located in Minneapolis and Duluth. These sites will be open this week to serve seniors, and the Minneapolis site will serve kindergarten through 12th grade educators and childcare workers. Next week, another mass vaccination site is slated to open in southern Minnesota. More vaccination sites may open in the near future.

As for the Minnesotans who received their vaccine first dose at the 10 vaccine sites in the pilot program, they will return to those sites to get their second shot in the series, health officials say.

Along with being able to get the vaccine at the Minneapolis site, educators and childcare workers will also be able to get doses at 35 public health clinics throughout the state. Pharmacies in Brainerd, St. Cloud and Rochester are also providing the shots to teachers and childcare workers, who will be contacted directly if selected to sign up for vaccine appointments. Local health departments will work with schools and child care programs to set up vaccinations.

Frustrations With The Rollout

It was supposed to be a big day for Minnesota seniors, but instead it ended up a big headache for many. A problem with MDH's new interactive map is that many of the clinics listed don't have the vaccine yet. Others plan to limit doses to their existing patients.

Sixty-eight-year-old Rick Koens of St. Louis Park has a host of underlying conditions. He was among those who went to MDH's new interactive map only to find the clinics listed didn't have a shot for him.

"I went through those clinics, and all of them say that it's for their patients only," Koens said.

He says his frustration and fear is growing as new variants spread.

"I just want to know what is going on," Koens said. "I don't know if it's going to be two weeks or if it's going to be two months."

Seventy-three-year-old Burnsville resident Oleh Artym says he's ready for the COVID vaccine, and ready to reunite with his family.

"We had a Zoom Christmas this year. You want it to be the same, but it's not," Artym said.

That's why he jumped when he heard about 35,000 new vaccines for seniors, and a finder website -- but his hopes were promptly dashed Monday.

"Well, the morning was really frustrating because every place I called I got the same response," he said.

Artym and his family called the locations listed on the new state site for three-and-a-half hours.

"The common response was this: 'First of all, we are not vaccinating people 65 and over.' They also said they were not aware of any program and they had to check with their people to find out because they were confused," he said.

WCCO reached out to state-named pharmacies and health providers from Itasca to Austin, around the Twin Cities, Cloquet, Marshall and Willmar. After reaching out to 10 places around the state, we were not able to find one solid appointment. Some places said to call back next week, but no vaccines appointments were currently available.

"The whole experience is making everyone anxious because you are not sure people know what they are doing," Artym said.

On Monday's call with state leaders, Kris Ehresmann -- the Minnesota Department of Health's director of infectious diseases -- pleaded with the public.

"We simply do not have enough vaccine for everyone who wants it at this time," Ehresmann said. "We ask you for your patience."

Of the 98,000 doses Minnesota has available this week, 50% will go to group 1A, comprised of health care workers and long-term care residents; 35%, or about 35,000, will go to seniors; and 11% will go to childcare workers and educators

There are an estimated 918,000 Minnesotans 65 and older, and it's estimated that about 12% of them have gotten vaccines.

At a GOP news conference, State Sen. Karin Housley, the Republican chair of the Senate Aging Committee, said they want the focus now to be just on seniors.

"It has to be seniors first, then move to the other phases and get the vaccine to everyone else," Housley said.

The state is not expected to change its current vaccination distribution. At that GOP news conference, one St. Paul man said it took hours of phone calls and little luck to get his elderly mother in Marshall a vaccine appointment. With the overwhelming demand, a combination of persistence and luck may be the only way to get the vaccine right away.

If you put yourself or a loved one on a waiting list as part of the vaccine lottery last week and were not chosen, you will remain on that wait list. And there will be another group of 6,000 chosen from that waitlist for vaccines sometime Tuesday.

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