Minn. lawmakers to Walz: Where are the shots?

A woman draw a liquid vaccine into a hypodermic needle
Heather Johnson, a pharmacist with Fairview M Health readies a vaccine dose at Ebenezer Ridges Care Center as part of the initial vaccinations of staff and residents on Dec. 28, 2020. Minnesota legislators are pressing state officials to speed up Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccinations while Gov. Tim Walz says kinks in the federally managed distribution system are the main holdup.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2020

Some state lawmakers are pressing Gov. Tim Walz’s administration to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations, saying doses are sitting too long and the process is convoluted.  

Walz and his advisers say they’re hamstrung by problems in the federal supply and are working within the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The pace of vaccination is the latest flashpoint in the political disputes over how COVID-19 is being managed in Minnesota. And how the inoculations go will dictate how fast commerce, schools and routine activities can be restored to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s been a month since the first coronavirus vaccinations began in Minnesota. So far, more than 155,000 doses have been administered, mainly to health care workers and long-term care residents.

Critics in the Legislature say the total should be far higher and the universe of recipients broader. Nearly 500,000 doses have arrived in Minnesota, although some have been designated for a long-term care vaccination program.

The mismatch between doses received and shots given is frustrating, said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point.

“It feels almost like bureaucracy is holding this vaccination distribution up,” Housley said. “Everyone wants to make sure they get it exactly perfect to make sure they don’t make a mistake. In the meantime, there the vaccines sit.”

Housley chairs a long-term care committee that took testimony Wednesday from pharmacists, advocates for the elderly, and people who just want their shots sooner.

“Time is of the essence right now for these folks that have been locked up since March,” Housley said. “They’re getting so frustrated they’re getting into their cars and they’re driving to Florida.”

People sit at tables in a room.
Around 60 residents at the long-term care facility, Gardens of Episcopal Homes, received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 30, 2020, in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Lisa Papp-Richards of Bemidji, Minn., spoke of her mother, who was hospitalized when a first round of vaccinations were given at her nursing home. She’s been left to wait for her initial dose and her family is struggling to understand why.

“I really feel like the Minnesota Department of Health is playing games with our loved ones’ lives,” said Papp-Richards, who believes state guidelines have tied the hands of care providers.

“I don’t know how much time my mom is going to have left and I am going to be able to spend with her,” she said. “I would like her to have the shot. The shot is very important to my mom. We just had this discussion last night . She wants the shot. She wants the shot so she can see me.”

Representatives from the state Health Department weren’t part of Housley’s committee hearing. But officials have said their strategy is to get doses to those most at risk and that it’s too soon to throw the doors open to wider vaccination.

Walz amplified that point this week.

“The thing that I’m really struggling with is you can’t just say everybody come in because no matter how many people we put in that queue, I only have a certain number of vaccines,” Walz said.

About 60,000 doses are arriving each week, with some people already receiving the recommended second dose deemed critical to enhanced immunity. Each state gets its allotment based on population and demographics.

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Minnesota
Gov. Tim Walz inspects the first delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to the Minneapolis VA Hospital as FedEx driver Seth Warnecke carries the box on Dec. 14, 2020.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP, Pool 2020

“We just need to connect the vaccine sitting in coolers and hospitals and some of the chain pharmacies and getting it out to local communities,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake and chair of a key health panel in the Legislature. “That step is going to be taken. I think the pressure is building.”

Walz has faced calls to set up mass vaccination sites as some other states have done. The governor said he is open to pop-up clinics at National Guard armories or other places where community testing has been conducted. But he said those create their own problems if vaccine supplies are crimped.

“If we start to see that volume, it makes sense to do this,” he said. “But I saw this big production in Arizona, they had everything set up and they had a parking lot ready and they had the divisions and people were going to come in and they had 6,000 doses. … And that’s only going to be 6,000 people. And then what are you going to do about the next, in this case, they thought 20,000 in line? They’re not going to get it.”

Some Democrats are also uneasy with how the rollout has gone. 

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said regulations around who can administer the shots might be more strict than they need to be. Providers already experienced in administering vaccinations should be given clearance more quickly, he said.

“Hearing emergency situations like this, sometimes we have to forego some of the requirements we may have under different circumstances,” Eken said.

The pecking order for vaccines has stirred its own debate.

Housley said getting immunizations for senior citizens is her priority. Others are lobbying to move up first responders, teachers or other essential workers.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee, recently signed onto a letter to the Health Department urging that school and child care personnel get priority consideration in the next phase of vaccinations.

“School employees, bus drivers, teachers, custodians but also child care workers, after school care workers, summer camp workers so that we can return to having children at the center of our policy deliberation,” Davnie said.

Newly issued CDC guidance could advance vaccinations for people age 65 and older. But unless considerably more doses arrive, it might just result in a better place in line, not an imminent poke in the arm.

The Minnesota Department of Health again urged patience Wednesday amid the new federal recommendations.

“As we learn more, we will work to make sure everyone who is eligible for a vaccine knows how, where, and when they can get their shots,” the agency said in an email update.
”Everyone’s opportunity to get vaccinated will come; it will just take some time.”