Sue Murr felt grateful Thursday to be one of the first recipients of COVID-19 vaccine via a new state option for people 65 and older — and for a daughter who stuck with the state's overwhelmed website to book the appointment.
"It would not have happened without my daughter," said Murr, 69. "She tried on the website, it crashed. She went to her phone and she had to reboot or something three times. On the third time, she got a confirmation."
Tens of thousands tried on Tuesday, but only around 6,000 Minnesotans 65 and older received appointments this week for COVID-19 vaccine at nine state sites. Even with appointments, people stood in long lines that stretched into the cold and windy outdoors at the Brooklyn Center site on Thursday. Many grumbled on the way in, and smiled on the way out.
"I have a newborn grandson. … That's a big deal. And I have a father in a nursing home, and I am an essential caregiver," said Murr, a social worker from South St. Paul. "So it was critical to get in. Besides, I want to live for a while longer and I don't want to battle COVID."
Establishing the test sites is one of several new steps by the Minnesota Department of Health to combat a pandemic that has caused more than 6,000 deaths in the state — a milestone reached Thursday, only 28 days after recording 5,000 deaths.
One goal with the sites was to test Minnesota's ability to quickly assemble the kind of mass vaccination clinics that might be needed later when more doses are available, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. "The federal government does have an expectation that we are prepared and ready to do that on a moment's notice."
The Health Department on Thursday also issued new guidance recommending precautionary COVID-19 testing of children and young adults aged 12 to 25 who are returning to school classes, youth sports or other group activities.
The state also unveiled a new electronic COVID-19 case investigation system by which people who have tested positive will be invited via text message to answer questions about viral exposures online before contact tracers call them for interviews.
"Tools like this survey will mean we can reach more people, more quickly, and ideally slow the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota," said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 32 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and 1,292 newly diagnosed infections, bringing the state's totals to 6,011 fatalities and 450,762 infections.
Transmission of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been slowing in the state after a surge of infections in the fall. Only 98 people with COVID-19 were being treated in intensive care units in Minnesota hospitals on Wednesday, the lowest number since Sept. 21.
The seven-day average positivity rate of diagnostic testing also dropped to 5.1% on Jan 12, an indication of less viral spread.
"The evidence does suggest that we may have already seen our post-holiday spike and that, thankfully, it was a modest and manageable one," Malcolm said.
State health officials remain concerned that another pandemic wave could emerge this winter and underscored the need to hasten the administration of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines that were only approved last month.
At least 203,839 people have received first doses of the two-dose vaccines in Minnesota, and 41,984 people have completed the series. Scant initial supplies were prioritized for health care workers who are at greater risk for viral infection and long-term care facility residents who have suffered 64% of the COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Minnesota continues to lag in national comparisons, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday listed the state 33rd in the nation for its per capita rate of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered.
The state ranks 20th for the rate of people who have received both doses, which in clinical trials provided 95% protection against infection.
Malcolm said the numbers belie progress in Minnesota. The state on Thursday showed that 246,364 of 609,825 immediately available doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota have been administered. However, Malcolm said that included about 170,000 second doses that must be reserved until later and other doses that weren't immediately accessible to providers in the state.
"It's more like about … 300,000 doses that have actually been available for providers to use," she said.
First doses have been provided or at least offered to the highest-priority health care workers in hospital emergency departments and COVID-19 treatment units.
Now county public health agencies are wading through requests for vaccine from outpatient clinicians and providers such as dentists and physical therapists.
Some providers were upset when the state announced it was diverting 12,000 doses from this week's shipment of 60,000 doses to its new test sites for people 65 and older as well as educators and child-care providers.
"As a chiropractor, I've been full-body-wrestling people every day of this pandemic," said Lori Goodsell, a Plymouth chiropractor who was upset at the lack of vaccine access.
Hennepin County Public Health invited school nurses and health office staff to receive vaccine at local clinics this week and will prioritize shots for the remaining "tens of thousands of health care workers" based in part on their risk levels, said Marcee Shaughnessy, coordinator for Hennepin County's testing and vaccination efforts.
Vaccinations at the nine test sites will be available again next week for seniors, who will need to register for appointments starting at noon Jan. 26.
Murr said it isn't a great system when considering that some of the neediest seniors aren't tech-savvy.
She sat for 15 minutes at the Brooklyn Center site after receiving her shot to make sure it didn't produce an allergic reaction. Her appointment for a second dose is three weeks from now in Rochester, because no local options were available.
Next to her was 65-year-old Ron Tupy of Apple Valley, and he was similarly worried about his 93-year-old mother who lives independently without a computer and won't be able to register online on her own.
"Maybe next week I'll just see if I can't get her signed up," he said, "give her a ride up here and go through it again."