MINNEAPOLIS — Senior citizens can enter a random draw for COVID-19 vaccination at state-operated sites once again as part of a new online registration process for all Minnesotans.

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday morning, Feb. 18, announced the debut of the Minnesota COVID-19 Vaccine Connector, by which Minnesotans will be notified when they can seek vaccine after inputting their demographic and employment information.

"We still have a frustratingly limited vaccine supply from the federal government, but every Minnesotan should know their chance to get a vaccine will come," Walz said in a written statement.

Senior citizens have been prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19, an infectious disease that has resulted in 6,390 deaths in the state and 25,287 hospitalizations of Minnesotans over the past year, along with health care workers, educators and long-term care facility residents.

Access has been spotty due to limited supplies, though. Seniors have struggled to make appointments through their regular medical providers, and pharmacies have only started to offer shots.

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Access to state-operated clinics in Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester was initially restricted to a group of 220,000 seniors who signed up before registration was closed. People on that existing waiting list do not need to use the vaccine connector. Seniors who aren't on that list will automatically be added after completing the new online tool.

Minnesotans in other demographic groups who can't access vaccine yet will receive notifications later via e-mail or text when it is their turn.

Minnesota is nearing 1 million total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered. The state pandemic website indicates that 695,629 people have received first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, and 246,431 of them have completed the two-dose schedule that proved to be 95% protective in clinical trials.

Walz on Wednesday acknowledged feeling almost "giddy" about Minnesota's improving position in the pandemic. Mask-wearing, social distancing, and restrictions on bars and group events helped Minnesota to avoid a post-Christmas surge of cases, buying time for the state to start to vaccinate its population. The governor urged even skeptics to "buy in" to these mitigation measures for the next 90 days, when the state can vaccinate 1.5 million people and make further strides against the pandemic.

"We've got this thing beat down a little bit," Walz said.

Health officials remain concerned about a new wave of cases due to more infectious variants of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples has found 40 infections in Minnesota involving a variant first found in England, and the first two cases in the U.S. of a concerning variant first identified in Brazil.

Minnesota at the moment has seen its positivity rate of diagnostic testing drop to 3.7%, below the caution threshold of 5% that suggests broad spread of the virus. COVID-19 hospitalization levels are at their lowest since the summer.

Minnesota has gradually added more technological tools to its pandemic response. The state in November unveiled the COVIDaware MN app, which uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously identify and alert recent close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

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