ST. PAUL — Health officials in Minnesota say they are redoubling their efforts to vaccinate hard-hit communities in the state for COVID-19.

Over the next four weeks, they say, approximately 40% of Minnesota's vaccine doses will be deployed to poorer and more isolated communities as well as to ZIP codes that people of color, people with disabilities and LGTBQ residents predominantly call home.

Speaking with reporters on a phone call Wednesday, April 28, Dr. Nathan Chomilo of the state Department of Human Services announced that the earmarked doses will in part be distributed according to a federal government measure of disaster preparedness. But he added that Minnesota will have to act on more than just "equity metrics" to close gaps in immunization, perhaps by extending the use of pop-up and mobile vaccine clinics.

"By providing a way to set and measure concrete vaccine equity goals, we are a step closer to doing right by the communities in Minnesota that have been hardest hit by COVID-19," he said.

Among Black, Hispanic and multiracial residents of Minnesota, vaccine coverage continues to lag behind populational representation, with American Indians and American Asian and Pacific Islanders faring slightly better. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Chomilo noted Wednesday, many faced barriers to routine health care.

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One strategy to improve their access to vaccine, according to Chomilo, might be to distribute doses by social vulnerability index score. The index, developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighs factors derived from the census, including poverty and transportation access, to predict the unique challenges an area could face in the event of a natural, manmade or health disaster.

Chomilo, currently the state medical director for Medicaid and the Minnesota Department of Health's vaccine equity director, said the index has already been used to some extent by state and local health officials, though he did not offer specific examples. Using the index, he said, department officials have determined that approximately 31% of Minnesotans live in zip codes with high vulnerability scores.

"Throughout the course of the pandemic, these 31% of Minnesotans have experienced 42% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, 42% of all COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota," Chomilo said. "That's 35% more hospitalizations, due to COVID than you would expect as communities were experiencing the pandemic equally."

State health agencies will coordinate with their local counterparts to distribute doses to high-scoring areas over the next four weeks, according to Chomilo, as well as with community-based organizations and through media outreach. Buses reconfigured to function as mobile vaccinator clinics will also play a role, he said.

Also beginning next week, Minnesotans will again have access to the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, Health Department Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said Wednesday. Use of the pharmaceutical company's single-shot version of the vaccine had briefly been discontinued in the U.S. following reports linking it to a rare form of blood clots.

Citing the relatively low risk of developing blood clots, the CDC late last week recommended it for use once more. Ehresmann said approximately 12,400 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be included in Minnesota's next vaccine shipment.

"The data showed that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the very small risks," Ehresmann said. Blood clotting "is rare, occurring at a rate of about seven per million vaccinated women between 18 and 49 years of age. For women 50 years and older, and men of all ages, this ... is even more rare."

Health officials did not discuss during Wednesday's call whether Minnesota will again loosen pandemic restrictions. With the current wave of infections appearing to subside by some measures, Gov. Tim Walz hinted a day earlier during a mobile clinic tour that additional limits on indoor capacity could soon be lifted.

"I think you can expect to hear from us the later part of this week or early next week," he said.

Following are the Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 case rates, deaths, hospitalizations and vaccinations as of Wednesday, April 28. Because all data is preliminary, some numbers and totals may change from one day to the next.

Statewide case rates

  • NEW CASES: 1,514
  • SEVEN-DAY, ROLLING AVERAGE OF NEW CASES PER 100,000 PEOPLE: 32.8 (As of Monday, April 19.)

  • TOTAL CASES: 572,025
  • TOTAL RECOVERED: 550,992
  • SEVEN-DAY, ROLLING AVERAGE TEST POSITIVITY RATE: 6.5% (As of Monday, April 19.)

Hospitalizations, deaths

  • ACTIVE HOSPITALIZATIONS: 643

  • TOTAL HOSPITALIZATIONS: 30,040

  • DEATHS, NEWLY REPORTED: 22

  • TOTAL DEATHS: 7,113

Vaccinations

  • FIRST DOSE ADMINISTERED: 56% of the state population

  • COMPLETED SERIES (2 DOSES): 41% of the state population

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