ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz said this week he will announce loosening more COVID-19 restrictions as vaccinations continue to rise, but some counties are significantly outpacing others in getting as many eligible people in their community vaccinated as possible, even with more vaccine widely available.

The initial surge in demand for COVID-19 vaccines has leveled off, state health officials have said, though they don’t believe that vaccine hesitancy or outright reluctance is entirely to blame at this point.

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Walz reiterated this during a news conference on Friday, where he touted Minnesota’s vaccinations as a “great success story.” A New York Times report Monday detailed that Minnesotans are more likely than their neighbors to be willing to take the vaccine, showcasing the difficulty for the nation to reach “herd immunity” status.

“There are numerous reasons people haven’t been vaccinated yet. And I would argue it’s not simply ideological or anti-vaxxer mentality,” he said. “There’s other factors that are going into that and we are seeing people continue to be vaccinated.

Minnesotans 16 and older are eligible for the vaccine and 59% of that population has least one shot, according to state data, which is 46% of the total population with at least one dose. More than 4.5 million doses have been administered so far.

But the vaccination rates are uneven across Minnesota’s 87 counties with some communities far closer to reaching the desired 70 to 80% of the population vaccinated.

For example Cook County, the northeastern tip of Minnesota, 78% of the 16+ population is vaccinated and 68% of the total population is vaccinated, according to state data. Children under the age of 16 are not yet approved to take the shots.

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On the contrary, Benton County has vaccinated 35% of its 16 and older population, or 27% of all of the people who live there. A few other counties have similarly lower rates.

Walz is expected to announce the next steps for the state’s reopening plan this week, but on Friday stressed that it will be a whole-of-state approach, regardless if some counties vaccinated most of their population sooner than others.

“Those who have said, ‘What about counties that have reached 80% vaccination rates and the county next door is at 30%? Is that going to be different?’” Walz said during a news conference. “We talked about this early in the pandemic—that causes a lot of problems. People are mobile. They move amongst different counties.”

The governor said there would be “triggers” in place for the next phase of reopenings. Other states have set benchmarks for later this spring and into the summer about what restrictions will lift and when, based on vaccinations and the state of the pandemic.

So far Walz has not given a similar timeline, though he said Friday that the Minnesota State Fair, planned for late August into early September, should be a “pretty close to normal event.”

“I think the good news for Minnesota is if you look at other states, many of those thresholds they’re setting to turn their dials, if you would, we’ve already met or are close to it,” he said.

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Far more vaccine appointments are available now than the initial rush of demand when eligibility expanded at the very end of March. The state fairgrounds vaccination site is now taking walk-up appointments.

Caroline Cummings