Mohamed Beshir prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Axis Medical Center on February 2, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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More than two months into Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, the state Health Department has released long-awaited data on the race and ethnicity of the people who so far have been vaccinated, most of whom have been 65 or older.

For people of color in the state age 65 and older, the percentage of people receiving vaccinations is trailing slightly their share of the state’s population. That’s even as communities of color have seen higher rates of serious illness and death from COVID-19.

According to the Health Department, about 38 percent of Black people 65 and older have been vaccinated, while 45 percent of white people in that age group have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine.

The proportion of Native American seniors who have been vaccinated hovers just under 40 percent, as does the percentage of seniors who are Asian or Pacific Islander. Thirty-one percent of Hispanic people 65 and older and 13 percent of people in that age group who identify as multiracial have also been vaccinated.

The new data is being reported through a partnership between the state and health care providers. State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department will use the information to better direct its vaccination efforts.

“We’re going to use this groundbreaking data partnership, and the insight into the data it provides, to help us drive improved and increasingly targeted strategies to better serve communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 over the past year, including Black, Latino, Asian Pacific islander and Native communities,” she said.

The data release comes after Gov. Tim Walz tweaked the state’s vaccine distribution strategy to focus on the state’s seniors.

Minnesota officials don’t plan to expand vaccine eligibility to other vaccination priority groups until 70 percent of Minnesotans 65 and older have been vaccinated. As of Wednesday, nearly half a million seniors in Minnesota had gotten at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine — about 58 percent of the state’s 65-plus population.

People over 65 have overwhelmingly accounted for the most hospitalizations and deaths throughout the course of the pandemic.

But Minnesota’s vaccine rollout plan has been met with criticism by some physicians and other advocates, because they say it leaves communities of color behind. More than 90 percent of the state’s population of people 65 and older identify as white.

RELATED: For some Latinos, Minnesota’s vaccine tool is more like a road to nowhere

Focused vaccination efforts

Since the first COVID-19 vaccines became available in December, the state has been following a metered vaccine rollout, in which identified priority groups become eligible for vaccination at specific points along the way.

As of now, state rules allow several groups to be vaccinated, including health care workers; educators and child care workers; residents, caregivers and staff of long-term care facilities; and anyone 65 or older.

While the majority of COVID-related deaths in Minnesota have occurred in the 65-and-older age group, when adjusted for age, Minnesotans of color have been proportionally more likely to contract COVID-19, be hospitalized for it and die from it, as compared to white Minnesotans, even if they are younger.

Earlier this week, Walz signaled that the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout so far had not effectively targeted groups disproportionately affected by the virus.

“We’re going to see through data [that] we are under-vaccinating communities of color,” he said. “This is an issue we’re all going to have to work on.”

People of color in Minnesota are more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19 due to a host of factors embedded in decades of economic and health-related systemic racism.

They’re more likely to work in jobs that have been deemed essential in the pandemic — often front-line work that requires frequent interaction with the public — and they’re more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.

So far, white Minnesotans have received shots in higher proportions compared with communities of color. For instance, nearly 19 percent of white Minnesotans who are 15 or older have received at least one shot of the vaccine. Comparatively, that proportion falls to just around 10 percent for Black Minnesotans and people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent — and just under 6 percent for Hispanic Minnesotans.

But while the state Health Department released vaccination data by race and ethnicity among various age groups statewide, it did not release that same data as it relates to the population of Minnesotans who are eligible to be vaccinated, leaving the picture of Minnesota’s progress toward vaccine equity only partially clear.

The data released Friday covers only about 83 percent of vaccinated Minnesotans for whom data is available. The state says it will update the data every Friday, and is working with health care providers administering the vaccine to increase the amount of data available.

Complications of gathering race and ethnicity data

State officials say gathering race and ethnicity data around people who are being vaccinated has been spotty so far because of legal barriers.

For years, the Health Department has operated under the assumption that state law prevents them from requiring health care providers and public health departments administering the vaccine from reporting race and ethnicity of the people they vaccinate.

But the Minnesota Department of Health’s legal staff revisited the statute recently and settled on a different interpretation: Providers are now required to report this to the state Health Department.

For the last few weeks, state health officials have been working to overlay this data with existing electronic medical record information it has access to to develop a more robust view of how well the state has vaccinated people of color so far.

This information will be used to develop more targeted strategies to make sure that people of color are able to access the vaccine going forward, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said.

“It’s important to know who has gotten the vaccine but also who hasn’t. Are there gaps? Are we missing particular groups? And how can we use this data to make sure everyone is having access to vaccines,” she said.

Ehresmann said that baked into the state’s plan are a number of strategies to make sure different racial and ethnic groups most severely affected by COVID-19 are prioritized for the vaccine — for instance, prioritizing certain underlying conditions members of these groups are more likely to suffer from, and prioritizing food processing plant employees who are more likely to come from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Meanwhile, the state has been working with organizations that already have close ties to communities of color to disseminate accurate information about the vaccine.

Strategy for vaccinating communities of color

State health officials on Friday laid out a number of strategies designed to do a better job of distributing vaccines among communities of color.

They said they’re working with 38 community-based organizations to help connect underrepresented communities to information about the vaccine. They’re also working with community-based media to get the word out.

And as shipments of vaccine increase — something that is already beginning to happen — and the eligibility groups expand, the state says it will do a number of things to get more vaccines out to people of color, including shipping more doses to community clinics and community pharmacies; standing up smaller vaccination clinics in targeted communities; and deploying mobile vaccination units for hard-to-reach groups of people.

Rachel Hardeman, a professor of health and racial equity at the University of Minnesota, said those strategies look much better than what the state has done so far, but she said she would have liked to have seen them happen sooner.

“I applaud the efforts to get … close to 70 percent of the 65 and up population vaccinated, but frankly, it was a colorblind approach,” she said. “And by doing so, we have continued to leave essential workers and black and brown communities unprotected.”

The COVID-19 vaccine is available to eligible Minnesotans through several channels, including health care providers, retail pharmacies, community clinics, Indian Health Service and Veterans Administration facilities, as well as mass vaccination sites for which vaccination appointments are made through a lottery system. The state has also launched a vaccine connector tool, for which anyone — regardless of eligibility group — can sign up to be notified when vaccines become available to them.

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Catharine Richert

Catharine Richert is based in Rochester, Minn., and covers Southeast Minnesota for MPR News. She was previously on MPR's politics team, and has contributed to MPR's health care coverage. She lives in Rochester...

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CONTRIBUTING REPORTER Dan Kraker is based in Duluth, Minn., and covers northeastern Minnesota for MPR News.