- Associated Press - Thursday, January 14, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The Minnesota Department of Health gave hospitals, health care systems and other vaccination providers on Thursday a bit more flexibility to provide coronavirus shots to a broader group of the population, including Minnesotans 65 and older, but said tight supplies mean they can’t throw the gates wide open yet.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said it’s a limited step that’s meant to free up providers, if they’ve made good progress with vaccinating the top priority groups, to use their remaining “small numbers of doses” on other people. The first groups to get vaccinated in Minnesota have included frontline health care workers and residents of congregate care facilities. The new rules mean surplus doses can now go to people age 65 and older and younger people with certain health problems.

“Today’s announcement is simply designed to remove barriers to health care providers and other vaccination partners, who have available doses, to be able to use those doses as quickly as possible while still ensuring that the doses we have are targeted to those most in need for protection from COVID-19,” Malcolm said during a briefing for reporters.

The federal government this week urged states to immediately start vaccinating people who had been lower down the priority scale, including people age 65 and up. But Malcolm said it’s critical for the federal government to sharply increase the vaccine supply before the state can give shots to broader categories of Minnesotans.

Minnesota providers had administered 169,416 doses as of Monday, according to the department’s new vaccination website, while 505,350 doses had been shipped to the state as of Wednesday.

“The reality is that we have far more Minnesotans eligible for getting the vaccine than we have doses available from the federal government,” the commissioner said. “We have been working to get ready, and we are ready, to get more vaccines out very quickly, but now we really need for the federal government to step up.”

Malcolm said her department is preparing to announce details “in the coming days” on the next phases of the state’s vaccine rollout and who will be in the expanded populations that become eligible.

The department reported 1,598 new cases Thursday and 43 new deaths, raising the state’s totals to 441,935 cases and 5,817 deaths. Trends in cases, deaths and hospitalizations have been broadly downward in recent weeks, which led Gov. Tim Walz to allow bars and restaurants to resume in-person dining this week. The governor announced Thursday that the state has recently issued $67.3 million in relief payments to 3,891 businesses affected by the pandemic.

But Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told WCCO Radio on Thursday that he expects the new, more contagious United Kingdom coronavirus variant to cause a “very substantial increase, the worst, by far, of the pandemic,” in Minnesota cases over the next six to eight weeks. Osterholm, a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory committee, said that means there’s a race to get the vaccine out.

Malcolm said her department hasn’t done its own projections of how the variant might affect case growth in Minnesota, where a few cases have been detected so far, but added, “I take Dr. Osterholm’s cautions to heart.”

Minnesota Senate Republicans, who had been urging the Democratic governor to speed up the vaccination process, welcomed Malcolm’s announcement.

“We all agree that vaccinations are the key to reopening. I’m glad more high-risk people in Minnesota will be able to access the vaccine with this change,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, said in a statement.

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