MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota ranks second in the nation for booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 30% receiving additional shots as experts race to understand an emerging viral variant and blunt its impact.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened its recommendation that everyone 18 or older should get the booster six months after receiving Pfizer and Moderna, or two months after Johnson & Johnson, respectively. The agency had previously said that older adults “should” get the booster, while the rest of adults “may” get the shot.

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“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a statement.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said experts are still learning about the Omicron, like how it interacts with vaccinated people and the severity of illness it causes. But he said the early evidence is clear and of concern.

“It’s highly infectious, likely is going to beat out Delta to become what I call basically the ‘king of the virus hill,’’ Osterholm said.

There are no confirmed cases of Omicron in Minnesota or the United States, but Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state has the capacity to track the new strain.

“Minnesota has built one of the nation’s strongest genomic sequencing and variant surveillance systems,” said Malcolm in a statement. “If an Omicron variant infection is found in Minnesota, we will share that information as soon as possible.”

Osterholm described boosters as “highly important” during this stage of the virus, noting that more than two-thirds of Americans who completed their initial vaccine series before June 1 are overdue for the booster shots and have not gotten them.

(credit: CBS)

The recommendation is an additional shot six months after receiving Pfizer and Moderna and two months following Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine. The concern is vaccine protection decreases with time.

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“We’re actually becoming more susceptible or vulnerable to this virus, not less,” said Osterholm. “So we’ve got to get these people vaccinated as well as continuing to emphasize first doses for those who’ve never been vaccinated.”

Data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show Minnesota’s booster numbers at 30%, which trends above the national average of 20.5% of the entire vaccinated population who has received an additional dose.

Nearly 70% of Minnesotans eligible for the vaccine – those 5 years old and up — have at least one shot, according to data from the state’s health department.

The news of the Omicron comes as Minnesota continues to battle a surge in COVID-19 with infection rates higher than most states in the nation. Hospitals here are facing a two-front war: There are patients who are ill with coronavirus and others facing critical non-COVID care needs with fewer staff to handle it.

The federal government last week sent to emergency military teams to relieve some of the burden.

Dr. Beth Thielen, an infectious diseases physician at M Health Fairview, noted that the Delta variant is what’s causing the strain on hospitals. She said the Omicron variant is “of concern,” but cautioned not to panic.

“We’ve been sort of expecting to see where these variants crop up,” Thielen said. “So I don’t think particularly surprising given how much COVID we’re seeing right now.”

She, like other public health experts, doubled down on the importance of vaccinations because of their protection against serious illness and death.

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“Even if you … are unlucky and get a breakthrough infection, you will be likely be substantially protected from having a bad outcome if you are vaccinated,” she said.

Caroline Cummings