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COVID In MN: Walz Announces Pilot Program To Vaccinate 65+, Educators; 'Patience' Urged

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday a pilot program that will launch this week to begin inoculating select educators, child care workers and Minnesotans ages 65 and older against COVID-19.

MORE: Vaccination Sign Up Information

According to a release from the governor's office, nine pilot sites will open this week, offering doses to pre-kindergarten through grade 12 educators, child care workers and Minnesotans ages 65 and older. The sites will be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Appointment scheduling will be available beginning at noon Tuesday.

The sites will be in Anoka, Brooklyn Center, Fergus Falls, Marshall, Mountain Iron, North Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and Thief River Falls. No walk-in appointments are available.

Because of the limited supply of the vaccine in Minnesota, only a small number of individuals in these now-eligible groups will receive doses. However, the program is expected to ramp up inoculations when more doses are supplied by the federal government.

"We are building for the future and doing what we can to get more shots to Minnesotans right now," 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."

RELATED: Minn. Educators Weigh In On New COVID Vaccine Pilot Program

Additional information about the nine pilot program sites is expected to be released Tuesday. The governor's statement stressed that appointments are required for anyone to be vaccinated at these sites. Those who are 65 and older are not advised to contact their healthcare providers. Instead, they are encouraged to wait until their providers contact them with information on setting up a vaccination appointment.

Walz and state health officials repeatedly urged patience during Monday's phone call with reporters, citing a supply of vaccine that falls short of demand. The state currently gets 60,000 doses of vaccine per week, and this week's supply will siphon 12,000 for the new vaccine sites.

They stressed that not everyone who now qualifies will be able to get their shot in the coming days. It could take weeks before people can get inoculated, and even four-and-a-half months by one projection, if doses received keep at this pace. If appointments fill up, Minnesotans will be directed on how to get on a waitlist.

The change to Minnesota's vaccine rollout came after federal officials updated their rollout guidelines last week to include people ages 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions. As for why teachers are included in Minnesota's pilot program, that's likely because many districts are aiming to have children back to in-person learning next month.

Over the last few weeks, Minnesota has prioritized vaccinating frontline health care workers and Minnesotans in long-term care facilities. These two groups -- totaling around 500,000 people and known as Phase 1A -- are on schedule to be vaccinated by the end of the month.

The vaccination of Phase 1A will continue as Minnesotans in the groups eligible as of Monday begin. Exact details on the Phase 1B rollout have yet to be announced.

Dr. Michael Osterholm with the University of Minnesota says Wednesday's inauguration offers possibility for changes to distribution. Osterholm is a COVID advisor to President-elect Joe Biden.

"The Biden administration's committed to equitable distribution of the vaccine around the country, so that each state, each region will get exactly the amount of vaccine that they could expect based on population," Osterholm said.

In assessing the state's vaccine distribution, Osterholm says the Minnesota Department of Health is doing its best with a tough situation.

"We're seeing a much more efficient system," he said. "I expect that to only get better with time. My big concern remains the fact that we're not going to have enough vaccine for the need."

He thinks Minnesota can at least count on there being enough to give a second dose to everyone who has already gotten a first. Dr. Mark Sannes, an infectious disease physician with HealthPartners, says this is a crucial point

"We think there's probably about 52% protection after one dose, and if you get the second dose it brings you up to that 95% level," Sannes said.

He says the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aren't interchangeable, and he advises sticking with the same brand for both doses. There also may be flu-like side effects for a short period, which Osterholm says is OK.

"When you get that kind of reaction, that's a good sign in the sense it means the vaccine's working, and that you're getting a good immune response," Osterholm said. "The second thing about that is … that is a minor illness compared to a life-threatening disease."

Marilyn Peitso, MD, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, released the following statement after the announcement, welcoming the news and urging Minnesotans to be patient:

The Minnesota Medical Association welcomes today's announcement about plans to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines to more Minnesotans and in more settings," Peitso said. "The vaccines present the greatest opportunity for ending this pandemic. We urge Minnesotans to be patient, however, because limited vaccine supply continues to persist. At this time, there are still health care workers and high-risk patients in congregate care settings waiting to receive their vaccinations. We also know this disease has disproportionately harmed Minnesota's Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and it is imperative that the state work to distribute vaccines to Minnesotans who are most at risk as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we call on Minnesotans to practice good health by continuing to wear masks in public, wash hands frequently, remain socially distant, seek care when you have symptoms and avoid large gatherings.


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