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Next phase of vaccine goal may be toughest, health officials warn

Jeremy Olson, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota is almost halfway to vaccinating 80% of its eligible population against COVID-19, but whether it can reach that goal — or even needs to get that far to stifle the pandemic — is unclear.

State leaders said the 80% COVID-19 vaccination goal is an estimate, based on limited knowledge of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and more experience with other pathogens. Vaccination rates of 80% and 95% were needed, respectively, to tamp down polio and measles outbreaks.

"It was a rough estimate to get to a point from which we could then evaluate progress in reducing spread," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. "It was based on what we know about other diseases and what we thought we knew about SARS-CoV-2."

Nearly 2.3 million people, or 52% of eligible Minnesotans 16 and older, have received vaccine and more than 1.6 million have completed the one- or two-dose series. The latter number equates to 37% of the eligible population.

Health officials worry that the next phase could be the toughest, though, as vaccination moves beyond the highly motivated recipients who are at elevated infection risks due to their occupation, or are more likely to suffer severe COVID-19 due to their age or health conditions.

Leaders at Mayo Clinic and other health care institutions nationwide have noticed weakening in the vaccine uptake rate. Appointments are still getting filled, but they aren't snatched up as quickly. Mayo in conjunction with Cleveland Clinic and 60 other medical providers launched a promotional campaign Tuesday to get vaccine-hesitant people to seek shots.

 

Waiting for others with greater need to go first is no longer necessary, said Dr. Melanie Swift, co-chair of Mayo's COVID-19 vaccination program. "Vaccine is not at this point a personal individual ethics test. It is really time to get that vaccine if it's available to you. Get the first vaccine you can get. You are helping everybody in your community by doing that."

Mayo modeling showed that Minnesota's current vaccination rate would not be enough, given the spread of more infectious viral variants, to prevent another COVID-19 wave that could be as widespread as last winter's surge. If Minnesota were already at 75%, the modeling suggests, the current wave would dissipate.

Even a 75% goal leaves a narrow margin when considering the latest national polling data showing a hesitancy rate of around 23%, Swift said. While hesitancy has declined, some health officials fear the nationwide pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to review extremely rare blood clots in six recipients could turn sideline skeptics into die-hard opponents.

"I don't know if we'll be able to convince those folks," Swift said, "but if we can convince everyone else, then we could get to about 75%, which would make things better for the rest of us."

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