ST. PAUL — Walz administration officials on Wednesday, Feb. 24, faced blowback from advocates aiming to get COVID-19 shots to more Minnesota seniors.
The comments came a day after Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he would soon announce which groups would be next in line to receive the vaccine. As the state increased immunizations to those 65 and older, public health leaders could start considering who should come next, the governor said.
Walz's spokesman on Wednesday evening said the governor planned to announce Thursday which groups would become eligible as more vaccines came to the state from the federal government. Frontline workers and those with preexisting conditions that put them at higher risk of requiring hospitalization from COVID-19 had been named as priority populations.
The governor's spokesman said the state would aim to vaccinate at least 70% of those 65 and older before growing the pool of those who could get a shot.
Republican lawmakers and AARP Minnesota officials this week said Minnesota seniors still faced obstacles to getting a shot. And they called on Walz to help make the vaccines easier to come by for those who might have trouble securing an appointment by computer.
About 1,700 AARP Minnesota members were surveyed about the process of getting a shot and 76% reported that they'd tried to get an appointment. Of those polled, 35% were successful in getting their first dose and 4% had received both doses of the shot.
The group's director Will Phillips wrote that the survey results along with personal stories from members "reveal a public confused and frustrated about why decisions have been made and the system they are left to navigate and demoralized when their efforts to secure a vaccine come up empty."
As of Wednesday, the Department of Health reported that 770,021 Minnesotans had received at least one dose of the vaccine and adults 65 and older represented 364,331 of those. Overall, 42.4% of Minnesotans 65 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of this week, according to the state data.
Members of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Committee on Wednesday morning pressed for answers about next stages of vaccine rollout and urged state health officials to prioritize getting the vaccine to 95% of adults 65 and older before additional other priority groups. And they said they didn't feel the state had done enough to simplify the process of getting a shot for Minnesota seniors.
“Bottom line is it’s a mess," Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, said. "One week it’s pilot sites, one week it’s a website that crashes then a phone number that sends you to a crashed website, then the department hires a new vendor and we have something called a vaccine connector that is no better than the less confusing website that we had previously."
Minnesota officials, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, late last year administered first doses to health care providers and those living in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities. From there, the state expanded the eligible pool to include adults 65 and older, as well as school and child care providers, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told lawmakers.
“Bottom line is it’s a mess. One week it’s pilot sites, one week it’s a website that crashes then a phone number that sends you to a crashed website, then the department hires a new vendor and we have something called a vaccine connector that is no better than the less confusing website that we had previously."
— Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point
“I just don’t understand the characterization that seniors aren’t a priority when the entire population residing in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities and other congregate care have been the first priority. We immediately opened up to all 65 plus as soon as the federal government said that was OK," Malcolm said. “They are the top priority."
Malcolm also fielded questions about the recently opened vaccine connector that the state launched to help Minnesotans find upcoming vaccination events or availabilities for which they're eligible. GOP lawmakers raised concerns about the portal becoming a "data grab" by the state as it asked about gender, relationship status, health conditions and other information.
Malcolm said the information shared through the site would be kept private and could help the state communicate with those hoping to get a shot.
“The whole idea is to get information that will allow us to help people navigate the system and to get them connected with vaccine opportunities," Malcolm said. "We’re not using this data for prioritization decisions."