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Minnesota gives anxious people tool to connect with vaccine

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota rolled out a new online tool Thursday to help anxious residents learn when and where they can get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Gov. Tim Walz announced the launch of the free “Minnesota COVID-19 Vaccine Connector” as part of the state’s strategy for getting people vaccinated as supplies slowly become available. Minnesota is currently vaccinating health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, teachers and school staff, child care workers, and people age 65 and over.

“This tool is available to all of us, right now, to help us better identify when, where and how we will be able to get our COVID-19 vaccine,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a briefing for reporters. “We want to make sure that signing up for the Vaccine Connector is easy, safe and the data are secure, and we encourage all Minnesotans to sign up, and sign up soon, no matter what your current eligibility status is.”

The state has not announced yet when people in other groups — those under 65, other occupations and people with underlying medical conditions — will get their chance to be vaccinated. But Malcolm said the connector will allow the state to reach out and alert them when they become eligible and notify them of vaccination and appointment opportunities.

Minnesotans without internet access can call 833-431-2053 to sign up. Translation services are available at that hotline.

People age 65 and over who sign up for the connector will get automatically placed in the waiting lists for appointments at state-run community vaccination sites, said Tarek Tomes, the state’s information technology commissioner. People already on those lists don’t need to do anything. Minnesotans will still be able to make appointments directly through their health care providers or other registered vaccinators.

But Malcolm cautioned that vaccine supplies remain “extraordinarily limited.” The state has been getting about 88,000 doses a week, which she acknowledged is less than 1% of the doses needed to vaccinate all Minnesotans, but added that the volume is growing. Severe winter weather elsewhere has delayed some shipments to Minnesota this week.

The connector will ask people to provide their contact information, medical history and employment areas to determine their eligibility based on state guidelines. They’ll also be asked optional questions about gender identity, sexual orientation, race, cultural identification and disabilities to help the state evaluate the equity of its vaccine distribution program — something the state has been unable to track so far because of medical privacy rules.

Malcolm noted that U.S. life expectancy dropped a staggering one year during the first half of 2020 as the pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, and minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Blacks losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

The Minnesota Department of Health said the state’s providers had given 975,626 vaccine shots as of Tuesday. It said 710,305 people had gotten at least their first dose, or 12.8% of the population, including 264,122 people who’ve had both shots, or 4.7%. The department reported 928 new coronavirus cases and 14 new deaths Thursday as the state’s totals rose to 476,292 cases and 6,404 since the pandemic reached the state last March.

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