Dr. David Thao, pictured here in his Woodbury office in September 2020, is helping organize a COVID-19 vaccine drive to target Hmong, Karen, and Southeast Asian communities in Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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A mass vaccination drive aimed at the Hmong, Karen, and broader Southeast Asian communities took place this weekend in St. Paul. 

The organizers of the drive, held at Hmong Village Shopping Center on St. Paul’s East Side, plan for weekly events as long as the need exists for vaccines to combat COVID-19. Dr. David Thao, who chairs the Hmong Medical Association and has spearheaded the effort, referred to the drive as “the first Hmong COVID-19 vaccine clinic.” 

“Our goal is to vaccinate the entire Hmong community and to provide a place where they can have easy access and feel comfortable being seen and treated by Hmong physicians and Hmong medical workers,” said Thao, who is also a plastic surgeon in private practice.

Thao and dozens of volunteers helped administer 200 shots of the Moderna vaccine on Saturday. During the day, eager patients waited in a hallway and checked in for their shots. When their turn came, they proceeded to a second room where volunteers helmed five stations for patients to receive vaccines. 

Zong Xiong, a public health nurse for Ramsey County, was one of the medical workers administering shots. She heard about the event through social media and decided to volunteer on her own time to help out. In total, more than 40 people like her volunteered for Saturday’s event. 

All day, patients coming in expressed relief and satisfaction to get the shot, she said. Some were scared of pain from the injection, but not of the vaccine itself. 

“They say, ‘I can’t look at the needle,’” Xiong said. “I tell them that it’s not that bad, I distract them, I talk to them about something else.” 

Leng Yang, 76, approached Xiong while a family member escorted him in his wheelchair. As Xiong screened Vang, she asked him which arm he wanted the shot in. He pointed to his right shoulder, and both Thao and Xiong helped him remove a brace on his right wrist to get ready. 

The shot came quickly, and Yang said he didn’t feel the needle all that much. To him, the proceeding felt uneventful, just like a flu shot.

“I’m just very happy to have gotten a chance to get one,” Yang said. 

Yang said he registered for a vaccine after hearing about the event on a local Hmong radio station. 

Vaccines for the drive are coming through Phalen Family Pharmacy, which is also located on St. Paul’s East Side and serves a large Hmong and Karen population. The vaccines became available after Phalen Family Pharmacy applied with the state to receive doses. Minnesota started allowing pharmacies access to the vaccine on the week of February 8. 

The pharmacy has held smaller drives in recent weeks, usually vaccinating a few dozen people at a time. So far, the pharmacy has vaccinated about 480 people since vaccines became available. 

The pharmacy itself doesn’t have enough staff to administer that many vaccines, said Phalen Family Pharmacy co-owner May Xia Lo. So Lo is seeking about 20 volunteers to help with the weekend event. 

That’s where Hmong Medical Association comes in. Thao and others affiliated with the association, which exists to give opportunities to aspiring Hmong doctors and medical professionals, will be on hand Saturday to help. 

Phalen Family Pharmacy is planning to administer 200 more doses again on Saturday, March 13. While some people in the community are hesitant to be vaccinated, many more are desperate to receive it, Lo said. 

“People just want to get their lives back to normal,” she said. “There have just been too many people in the community who passed away last year.” 

A community alternative to Walgreens and Walmart

Hmong Medical Association has been spreading awareness about the available vaccines through its social media and YouTube pages. Other organizations, like Hmong American Partnership, have been helping with messaging as well. Mai Moua, Hmong American Partnership’s chief operating officer, said organizations like Phalen Family Pharmacy are effective at reaching the community. 

“These are smaller, community-based pharmacies instead of like your big Walgreens and Walmarts.” Moua said. 

Most of the vaccines have been going to bigger organizations like these, along with big health care systems and big hospitals, Thao said. These aren’t the best places to reach the Hmong community, he said, especially Hmong elders who may not be completely proficient in English. 

Though 1 million Minnesotans have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, shots are still limited and hard to access for most people. This has prompted the proliferation of so-called “vaccine hunters”—people who search relentlessly online and bombard health clinics and pharmacies with phone calls to share information about available doses in online groups.

“These community members who are 65 to 75 years old, they don’t have that luxury,” Thao said. “The chances of them getting it that way is going to be slim.”

Asian Americans in Minnesota are also being vaccinated at disproportionately low rates. According to state data, three percent of all vaccines have gone to Asian Americans, though this population accounts for 5 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Besides using social media, organizers of the vaccine drive are working with community media, churches, and leadership groups like the Hmong 18 Council to find elders eligible for the vaccine. People interested in receiving the vaccine at a future Hmong vaccine drive can call Phalen Family Pharmacy at 651-209-9000 to ask for appointments. 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...