Walz details COVID-19 vaccine plan; GOP leaders back it

Minnesota positioned to start vaccinating health care workers, long-term care residents by the end of the month.

Gloved hands hold a syringe and vaccine vial.
Nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y., on July 27. Minnesota officials are set to announce plans to vaccinate people possibly starting this month.
Hans Pennink | AP

Updated 3:25 p.m.

Minnesota is expected to receive 183,400 doses of COVID-19 vaccines this month, and they’ll be targeted toward health care workers and the state’s most vulnerable residents, Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday.

The vaccines will come from two makers, Pfizer and Moderna, which are seeking emergency use for their products from the federal Food and Drug Administration. The agency is expected to decide on Pfizer’s vaccine on Thursday and Moderna’s on Dec. 17.

That timeline could position Minnesota to start vaccinating people as early as next week.

“It is happening. It is ready,” Walz said of the start of vaccinations. “Here in Minnesota, we’re prepared for it.”

He cautioned, though, the Minnesotans must still do all they can to stop the spread of the disease, including wearing masks in public gathering spaces, socially distancing and staying home if you don’t feel well.

Walz was later joined by legislative leaders, including House Republican leader Kurt Daudt and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. Both have pushed back against Walz’s use of emergency powers in the pandemic and questioned his decision-making. On Tuesday, though, both came out in support of the vaccination proposal.

"This is some place where we have found common ground to move forward,“ said Gazelka, who had COVID-19. “The vaccine is really important. We want to encourage people to take it,” He added that he would not be in favor of requiring Minnesotans to take it.

The governor warned that the start of vaccinations was not a panacea, saying the state was still seeing cases, hospitalizations and deaths. He likened the vaccine to a “fire hose, but even with that the fire is too big. It’s hard to put out.”

1 card, 2 doses, 6 weeks to protection

Officials say people will need two doses, spaced about a month apart, to get the protection from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It takes about six weeks from the first shot to get protection from COVID-19, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

The vaccines will be distributed to 25 hub sites, like hospitals, around the state that will be used to redirect to 118 sites, she added.

The initial 183,000 doses is for that many people. The vaccine developers are holding back the second doses until they are needed, Ehresmann added. (Walz noted that a third vaccine maker is producing a vaccine that could be ready in January that requires only a single shot.)

The initial shipments will only cover a fraction of the roughly 500,000 care workers, emergency personnel, long-term care residents and others in Minnesota identified as priority populations.

Ehresmann and Walz urged patience in the process. It may take several months before the entire population — some 5.7 million Minnesotans — can be vaccinated.

When people get vaccinated, they’ll receive a card that confirms it, Ehresmann said. People will be encouraged to take a photo of it in case they lose it. The providers of the vaccination will report the record to the state.

Walz also acknowledged that the process may not have the trust of all Minnesotans.

“There’s work to be done … we have been a very divided nation around approaches to COVID-19,” he said, adding that “we’re going to make every effort to heal some of those rifts.”

A presentation slide shows timeline of COVID-19 vaccine
The Minnesota Department of Health slide displaying the timeline for the vaccine.
Minnesota Department of Health

‘Going to take some time’

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities be the first to get the vaccines.

“Folks need to understand that it’s going to take some time for the vaccine to roll out to the public,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in an interview with CNN.

“In the first wave, that will be immunization of health care workers who are working in hospitals and long-term care and also the residents who live in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities,” she added. “That’s going to be happening automatically within those sites.”

But even as distribution to some groups is taking shape, challenges remain in getting it to the wider public in coming months.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept extremely cold, which may be a logistical issue for rural areas of the state where space to adequately protect the vaccine is scarce.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also require two doses within weeks of each other, so public health officials are considering strategies to make sure people who get their first shot come back for their second on time.

It may be years before everyone in the world is vaccinated, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota public health professor and director of the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

“If you look at the world’s availability of vaccines ... it’s going to take until at least 2024 until there’s enough vaccine doses for the 8 billion people on the face of the Earth,” Osterholm said. “As long as there is transmission in middle- and low-income countries, we are going to still see it keep spilling into the U.S. for those who aren’t vaccinated or protected through illness.” 

Earlier: Gov. Tim Walz and public health leaders roll out plans for vaccinations:

Gov. Tim Walz and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are taking questions from reporters on vaccine distribution: