St. Paul, Minn. (WCCO) — Two million more Minnesotans would be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine under the federal government’s new expanded guidance recommending access to people ages 65 or over and adults with underlying health conditions.

The big change announced Tuesday by United States Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is welcome news, but could pose new challenges to the state’s vaccine administration, state health officials told state lawmakers during a Senate Committee Wednesday.

One hurdle that looms large is if there will be enough doses to meet a broader need. The state currently receives 60,000 doses per week, and inoculations are currently underway for Phase 1A, a group consisting of hospital workers and long-term care facility residents, which totals 500,000 Minnesotans.

The new federal guidance would quickly make an additional 2.2 million more people eligible — the 65-and-over population adding another 918,000 and adults aged 18-64 with underlying conditions including another 1.3 million Minnesota residents.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told the Senate Health and Human Services Finance committee that the announcement was a surprise, and they’ve yet to receive anything in writing. They underscored to state lawmakers that there are still many unknowns.

(credit: CBS)

“One of the advantages of opening up to broader groups of people is it’s simpler to understand and there’s less question about who falls in what group, if it’s aged-based and health condition-based,” Malcolm said. “The problem is just the population has expanded hugely and the vaccine supply has not, at least not yet.”

Today about 147,000 Minnesotans who fall under Phase 1A have had at least one dose, and nearly 8,000 have had both doses, according to the state’s new vaccine data dashboard. That’s 2.7% of the total population.

Minnesota’s initial plan called for Phase 1B includes people 75 and older and frontline workers providing essential services. Minnesotans 65 and older and those with high-risk medical conditions are in 1C.

It appears the federal recommendations would accelerate timelines. Malcolm said that the expansion would occur before even phase 1A is complete, and that the announcement throws a wrench in the states plans for vaccinating essential workers.

“The Minnesota advisory group was prepared to give thoughtful recommendations about sub-prioritizing among the essential worker category, and that’s really in question now with this new federal guidance. How do we include federal workers who aren’t included in the federal guidance, even though that had been the planning assumption?” Malcolm said. “We’re trying to get more information literally in the coming hours.”

The rollout of vaccines across the United States been slower than anticipated, and the Trump administration also said it would release doses previously reserved for second shots, a plan President-elect Joe Biden advocated for.

More than 10.2 million Americans have received their first doses of vaccine, while more than double — 29.3 million — have been distributed, according to a CDC tracker.

Azar said Tuesday the new guidelines are an effort to speed up the process and ensure no doses languish unused. Beginning in two weeks, the federal government would shift its allocation formula and base it on how fast states administer vaccines and the size of the population 65 and over.

It’s unclear whether Joe Biden’s incoming administration will alter plans even further.

Caroline Cummings