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Minnesota Health Official Says Vaccine Rollout Hasn't Been As Bad As It Seems

Minnesota has administered about 39% of the vaccine doses it has received. About 1.5% of the state's population has been vaccinated.
Pascal Guyot
AFP via Getty Images
Minnesota has administered about 39% of the vaccine doses it has received. About 1.5% of the state's population has been vaccinated.

The national campaign to vaccinate people against COVID-19 is off to a rocky start. Expectations just a month ago were for 20 million people to be vaccinated by the end of December. But as of Monday morning, just 4.5 million people have received their first dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal government is shipping the vaccines, but actually getting doses into people's arms falls largely upon state and local governments.

Success has varied by state.

In Minnesota, health workers have administered about 37% of the doses the state has received, the CDC reports. About 1.5% of the state's population has been vaccinated.

Kris Ehresmann, the director of the Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, says the pace so far has actually been good, considering logistics.

Minnesota is using a hub-and-spoke model for distribution of the vaccine, says Ehresmann. So although the state's hub sites began receiving vaccines on Dec. 18, they weren't redistributed to the sites where they would be administered until at least Dec. 21. Then Christmas and New Year's slowed things down.

"I think that as more and more doses come into the state that we expect to see vaccine happening at a much faster pace," she tells All Things Considered. "And the fact that we're starting a week that doesn't include a major holiday will also make a difference."

She talked with All Things Considered about the process so far. Here are excerpts:

What are the biggest obstacles to getting people vaccinated in your state? Is it more about logistics or is it more about people's hesitancy to get vaccinated?

I think it's really more the details of the logistics. So in other words, when you're using a vaccine that has so many considerations, like the Pfizer vaccine, for instance, with the storage and handling, the fact that it's reconstituted and once reconstituted, you have a limited amount of time that you can use that vaccine. You really have to be thoughtful as you begin your vaccination program, because you need to make sure that when you start reconstituting vaccine that you're going to use that vaccine within six hours. ...

Another consideration is the fact that for the federal long-term care pharmacy partnership program, states had to set aside 50% of the total need. So that means, for instance, in Minnesota, that we had to set aside 82,500 doses and have those ready to go, even though they won't all be administered in the first week of the program.

[Chief federal vaccine adviser Moncef Slaoui is] saying that the federal government has pretty much done its part already in coordinating vaccine distribution efforts. How do you respond to that?

Certainly they have provided us with vaccine and we're very grateful. But there are elements of the process that are not quite as perhaps smooth as they're being described. So, in other words, the fact that the vaccine allocation for last week came on New Year's Eve, that's wonderful. And that's vaccine that we will administer. But coming the day before the holiday makes it challenging to really start using that vaccine in earnest.

It's not really a question that the states are not able to provide vaccine. In fact, when we look ahead to the numbers of doses that we need, it's really pure vaccine availability that's going to be really the limiting factor. It's just a function of a bunch of systems starting up right in the middle of the holidays.

The fact that 20 million people have not been vaccinated in the U.S. by the end of 2020, is that just sort of a PR problem at this point for the federal government rather than a public health problem?

I do think actually it's more of a PR problem. You know, one of the big lessons learned that we learned from H1N1 was to under-promise and over-deliver. And I feel like we're in a place where there were perhaps promises made of what could be administered. And that was probably not a realistic time frame.

We are getting vaccine into arms. Our systems are all committed to making sure that people are getting vaccinated. And I think once we're getting the vaccine on a regular basis, that will make a huge difference.

Sam Gringlas and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.