ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Health officials and large providers from southern Minnesota said the region is near the top of the state in percent of residents vaccinated against COVID-19, but conceded that gaining access thus far has created a confusing process.

"Vaccine allocations come to these systems in different ways and amounts," said Graham Briggs, director of Olmsted County Public Health in an afternoon press conference alongside representatives from Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center on Thursday February 4. "We want to encourage people that want vaccine and are eligible, to use any opportunity that becomes available for them."

Briggs explained how, depending on a person's age and background, they might encounter several pathways for vaccine, but emphasized that the best one is the first one they can get.

"If I were an 81-year-old veteran and Mayo patient I may have a couple of options," he said. "I might be contacted through Mayo. I might get contacted through the VA. If I wanted to drive to Minneapolis or Duluth I could register for the lottery for people over 65, and we believe local pharmacies are getting vaccine. That one individual may be contacted by multiple agencies."

"We encourage people when you have a chance," he continued, "to go ahead and get vaccinated. As other options present themselves, you can decline at that point."

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With 475,000 Minnesotans, or just 8.6% of the population, having received one dose, and 129,000 or 2.3% of the population having received both doses, and with levels of transmission at their lowest levels since last summer, the state is in a race to get vaccine into arms before the more transmissible variants spread enough to threaten new shutdowns.

Some health officials, like University of Minnesota epidemiologist and Biden administration COVID-19 advisor Dr. Michael Osterholm have gone so far as to suggest foregoing second doses in order to use all available vaccine for first doses, to increase the population with even a small amount of protection. Research shows that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, for example, provides just over 50% protection.

Dr. Abinash Virk, co-chair for the vaccine allocation and distribution workgroup at Mayo Clinic, said there were no plans to take that step at this time within Mayo.

"We have the most data on two doses, which are 95% effective," she said. "I don't think we have enough data to say we can give one dose. We need more information as a country before we decide to do that."

At this time, with 30,000 residents (19.1%) having received at least one dose, Olmsted is third in the state for vaccinations -- more than double the state average.

Much of that eligibility comes from the large healthcare workforce in the county, where Mayo Clinic alone has now given first doses to 34,000 (62%) of its employees throughout the Midwest, and both doses to almost half, or 25,000 employees.

Mayo this week said it has received 3,900 doses for all of Rochester, southeastern and southwestern Minnesota, of which it has allocated 2,000 doses for Rochester, 1,090 for southwestern Minnesota and 780 for southeastern Minnesota.

Although it is still planning to vaccinate 2,800 remaining healthcare workers as identified in the state prioritization plan known as group 1a, the bulk of these new doses are going to those aged 80 and older.

With those 6,000 persons almost all vaccinated, Mayo is currently sending invitations to area residents 75 and older for vaccination beginning next week.

Qualifying older patients outside of the Mayo system have equivalent access, Virk said, they just need to call the Clinic or go to the website to request an appointment. Virk says the Clinic has an 80% overall vaccine acceptance rate among employees.

"People are still kind of hesitant to get the vaccine out of concerns that it was made very rapidly," Virk said. "My message about that is the vaccine is really safe and the rapidity of how it was created did not compromise the evaluation of safety in terms of production or clinical trials."

"We're trying to understand the reason for that hesitancy. We are trying to do a survey for people to anonymously share the reasons they may be hesitant. We want to listen to them and address their concerns why they are hesitant."