3 things to know:
Walz: Every Minnesotan should be able to get a shot by summer
Vaccination pace still scuffling; pandemic metrics good
Officials: Kids, families should now get tested every 2 weeks
Updated: 4:22 p.m.
Gov. Tim Walz laid out ambitious plans Thursday to get COVID-19 shots into the arms of every Minnesotan who wants one by the summer while keeping the state’s short-term focus on residents 65 and older.
"The finish line's there. Let's finish this thing,” Walz said in remarks that were mostly upbeat about the state’s current circumstances on the one-year anniversary of the first Minnesotan showing COVID-19 symptoms.
Walz indicated that the Minnesota State Fair is even a distinct possibility this year, after the pandemic canceled it in 2020. The fair, he said, “is within our reach.”
Fielding reporter questions later, he stayed buoyant. "There’s every reason for us to be super-optimistic,” he said of the state’s position on the pandemic arc. “Now we’re talking weeks, not months or years, until this thing is over.”
The governor’s remarks were tempered by data showing Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccination pace remains frustratingly flat.
The state Health Department on Thursday reported 28,517 new vaccinations, down from the prior Thursday, with the trend line stuck flat to slightly declining.
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Officials hope the arrival of some 45,000 weather-delayed shots on top of the state’s regular 100,000-dose allocation will soon jump-start the pace of vaccinations, although it hasn’t happened yet and the pressure to move faster is rising.
Walz said the state wouldn’t expand eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines until at least 70 percent of residents age 65 and older get a first dose — a threshold officials expect to reach by the end of March.
Once that threshold has been met, Minnesota will open vaccinations to others based on underlying health conditions and workplace exposure risk, including some 45,000 employees working at Minnesota food processing plants.
The governor and other officials indicated that their timeline was conservative and expressed hope that it would move faster as more supplies — including the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine now under federal review — become available.
"We can't do it fast enough. Every single governor in this country is hearing the same things,” Walz said of vaccinations. “It's simply a supply and demand issue, folks There's not enough vaccines still at this point in time.”
About 14.1 percent of Minnesotans had received at least one dose as of the the Thursday update, with about 6.9 percent completely vaccinated.
More than 43 percent of Minnesotans 65 and older have received at least one shot currently. However, people in that age group are still struggling to make appointments to get vaccinated.
On Tuesday, AARP Minnesota called on the state to improve the process, saying the current system has left many of their members “frustrated and confused” with some feeling “demoralized when their efforts to secure a vaccine come up empty.”
Walz has acknowledged those concerns, saying Thursday that the state is asking the federal government for more collaboration on where the vaccines are distributed to better connect people to vaccine supplies.
“We don't want people driving around,” Walz said. “We know that in this time of scarcity, it has felt a little like that “Hunger Games” because everybody wants in."
Minnesota currently ranks 17th among states in doses administered per 100,000 people, according to data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minnesota had been as low as 25th on that ranking.
Pandemic metrics still solid
Vaccination concerns aside, Minnesota’s COVID-19 numbers show the state holding fairly steady in a good way.
Hospitalization rates remain encouraging and down to levels from last fall. There were 265 people with COVID-19 in Minnesota hospitals as of Wednesday. The number needing intensive care fell to 50.
Known, active cases stayed below 7,000 for the fourth consecutive day, the first time that’s happened since late September.
Seven newly reported deaths raised Minnesota’s toll to 6,450. Among those who’ve died, about 63 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
The state has recorded 481,831 total confirmed or probable cases so far in the pandemic, including 996 reported Thursday. About 97 percent of Minnesotans known to be infected with COVID-19 in the pandemic have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.
Cases spread across age groups, regions
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — nearly 91,000 since the pandemic began, including nearly 48,000 among people ages 20 to 24.
The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 37,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Although less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it unknowingly to older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations.
People can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
Regionally, most parts of Minnesota are down significantly from the late November, early December spike as well as a January blip.
There has been an uptick in cases in northwestern Minnesota recently, although it’s unclear why.
On Wednesday, Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner, expressed concern about the uptick seen in the northwest and west-central regions, saying it showed the state needed to remain vigilant against spread.
“The vaccines are coming and continue to increase, and that is fantastic news, but we’re not there yet,” he said, adding, that the state doesn’t have enough people vaccinated “to stop the next wave.”
Caseloads still heaviest among people of color
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.
Even as new case counts continue to fall from their late November, early December peaks, the data shows Latino people continue to be hit hard.
Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.
Distrust by communities of color “is the thing that has plagued us for some time,” Walz said Tuesday at a briefing promoting vaccinations for people of color.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that it’s been a “real problem” not having data broken down by race and ethnicity but that the state may have data to share by next week.
Families with kids urged to test every 2 weeks
With kids increasingly returning to school buildings and sports, Minnesota public health officials are urging Minnesota families with children to get tested every two weeks for COVID-19 now until the end of the school year.
While it’s not a requirement, the effort will help protect progress the state’s making to limit the spread of the virus, Huff told reporters Wednesday.
Families can use the state’s testing at home program, go to a community testing site or work with their own health provider, Huff said.
“We’re not asking schools or youth organizations to provide this testing,” he added. “This is a recommendation for all youth, in-person, returning to school, youth sports, extracurricular activities.”
Huff noted that the state’s teacher testing shows a very low level of COVID-19 in that population to date. Huff said some 72,000 educators have been tested with only a .35 percent positive test rate. Officials find a 5 percent rate as cause for concern.
Walz on Thursday said 88 percent of the state’s public school districts and charter schools are offering some in-person learning now.
Correction (March 5, 2021): An earlier version of this story described the total vaccinations as a percentage of Minnesota’s 16 and older population. The percentage includes the entire population.
Vaccine timeline from the Minnesota Department of Health
Watch: Gov. Tim Walz lays out vaccine timeline
Walz takes reporter questions
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.
Entertainment coalition challenges COVID curbs on bar games in lawsuit
The owners and operators of darts, pool tables and other games in hundreds of bars are joining the legal challenge to COVID-19 restrictions.
The Minnesota Operators of Music and Amusement Association said Thursday that it was filling a lawsuit in Ramsey County, asking a judge to roll back an 11 p.m. curfew and capacity limits at bars, bowling alleys and other hospitality businesses.
Dan Lieberman, president of American Amusements, one of 25 companies that are part of the association, said they have about 700 employees, and have been very hard hit by COVID-19 restrictions.
“This is not a political issue,” Lieberman said. “It's a business issue. filing a lawsuit was a last resort. Our member businesses have been closed for five in the last 12 months with very little revenue coming in for almost half a year.”
Bars and restaurants, youth sports and mask mandate opponents have previously brought legal challenges to COVID-19 restrictions, none of which have succeeded in Minnesota.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Minneapolis schools to bring middle, high school students to classroom
Minneapolis Public Schools will offer in-person learning for older students in March and April, the district announced Thursday.
Minnesota’s third largest district is welcoming special education students back to in-person classes on March 22. On April 12, high school students will be able to return to in-person classes. The following week of April 19, middle school students will be able to return to in-person classes.
Students who want to continue distance learning will be able to do so if they choose.
The school district’s open date will come more than a month after the date Gov. Tim Walz told public schools they needed to begin offering in-person learning for older students.
— Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News
Minnesota Senate passes business reopening bill
The Minnesota Senate passed legislation Thursday to allow businesses to fully reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic if they have a plan for operating safely.
The bill is aimed at helping bars, restaurants and other businesses that were forced to close or scale back operations under emergency orders issued by DFL Gov. Tim Walz.
Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said many struggling businesses are looking for relief.
“Since we’re a year out from the emergency orders, we now have vaccines that are out, we have cases that are down, we have hospitalizations that are down, and it’s time to start unwinding these emergency orders that have left one person in charge of too many crucial decisions,” Mathews said.
The bill also requires legislative approval of any future emergency order closures.
The vote was 38-29, with some Democrats joining all Republicans. A companion bill was just introduced Thursday in the DFL House.
Several Senate Democrats spoke against the bill. Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth, was among those who raised concerns about the safety of workers.
“If we’re going to be giving the green light to businesses to reopen and to require their employees to appear in person, we are in effect making those workers frontline workers,” McEwen said.
In the House, Republicans pushed for an immediate vote on a bill to provide a concrete timeline for expanding capacity at restaurants, theaters, event centers and other restricted businesses. The attempt was withdrawn after it was clear it would fail.
“Our event centers can’t make it much longer,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar. “And the longer we wait, the worse it is, the deeper the hole, the more weddings leave the state of Minnesota or go down the road to the bar. It isn’t working any longer.”
A committee planned to discuss the proposal on Friday.
— Tim Pugmire and Brian Bakst | MPR News
Businesses that tapped pandemic loan program now find it may cost them: Unless the Legislature steps in, thousands of Minnesota businesses might owe taxes on the federal loans they used to keep employees on the payroll during the pandemic.
Are the pandemic’s darkest days ahead? We get a second opinion: Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who served as a COVID-19 advisor to Joe Biden during the presidential transition, has predicted the darkest days of the pandemic are coming. But not everyone agrees the outlook is so dire.