MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Friday that the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program will expand next week to include all Minnesotans ages 16 and older. The governor’s announcement comes as the federal government has promised an increase in vaccine supply in April. The eligibility will expand on Tuesday.

“Today is one of those days where we can start to make the big leap forward,” Walz said at a Friday morning news conference, adding: “I can’t tell you how excited I am for the state of Minnesota.”

While tens of thousands of more Minnesotans will be eligible for vaccine shots next week, the state will still ask providers to prioritize vaccinations for older Minnesotans, those with underlying health conditions, and those in frontline jobs. From there, the providers will have the flexibility to allocate appointments to other eligible Minnesotans.

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The governor encouraged those who will become eligible on Tuesday to sign up with the state’s Vaccine Connector, which will alert users to where they can get the vaccine, whether at a clinic, pharmacy or community vaccination site near them. Additionally, he said that families will be able to get vaccinated together.

Walz urged all Minnesotans to get in line for the vaccine, acknowledging that while they might be eligible next week, they’ll likely receive the vaccine later, due to supply constraints.

“This does not mean you’re going to get this next week,” he said. “It means you’re in line.”

The governor made a specific appeal to young people, the demographic which is experiencing a current uptick in COVID-19 spread.

“Take your roommates and go and get the vaccine,” he said. “Keeping in mind, there are no barriers, there is no cost….When you get the vaccine, not only are you protecting yourself, you’re protecting your roommate, you’re protecting that family, and you’re protecting the person who might inadvertently get it through asymptomatic spread. This is how we break the back of this pandemic.”

The state’s goal is to get 80% or more of the population vaccinated, thereby reaching herd immunity. After that, Minnesotans will be able to safely return to all of the activities and traditions that have been put on hold over the last year. As of this week, just over 16% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated against the virus.

“We’ve got a ways to go, obviously, to get to 80%, but the infrastructure is there, the vaccines are coming, Minnesotans are showing a willingness to get this done, and this is how we beat it,” Walz said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm pointed to a 96% case drop in Minnesota’s long-term care settings, since all 2,000 have been fully vaccinated.

“Hope is returning to these facilities after a very frightening and stressful year of coping with COVID-19,” she said. Malcolm wants Minnesotans to feel confident in the vaccine.

Earlier in March, vaccine eligibility was expanded to include 1.8 million people with underlying health conditions and essential workers, weeks ahead of schedule.

At that time, the conservative estimate from the Minnesota Department of Health — which did not account for potential surges in vaccine supply in the coming weeks — was that the state would again expand eligibility at the end of April.

As of this week, almost 80% of Minnesotans age 65 and over have had at least one dose of the vaccine. The latest figures also show Minnesota has administered around 89% of the vaccines its received from the federal government. That’s more than any other state.

More than 1.5 million people have had at least one vaccine dose, and over 900,000 people (16.2% of the state’s population) have completed their vaccine series.

The total vaccine doses administered is now at 2,363,495, mostly of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was given emergency approval late last month and has accounted for 2.3% of the vaccine distribution in Minnesota.

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While the state is making significant progress in the fight against COVID-19, we’re not out of the woods, officials say. Cases are growing, according to the latest numbers.

It appears more contagious COVID variants are playing a role. Earlier this month, the focus of the B117 variant — first found in the UK — was in Carver County. But in the state’s latest sampling batch of COVID-19 tests, they identified 479 infections of the more contagious variant.

Health officials say letting our guard down now could prevent us from reaching the finish line. They are encouraging Minnesotans to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and get tested.

The state currently samples up to 500 random COVID tests each week to test them for any variants, in addition to testing areas with rapid case growth. Soon, they anticipate testing 1,500 samples a week.

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