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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Since a new wave of COVID-19 infections hit the state last month, one thing has been clear: Minnesota’s Black communities are getting infected at higher rates than any other population.

What isn’t so clear is who is getting hit the hardest within the state’s Black population, about 40 percent of whom are African immigrants, according to Minnesota Compass.

But members of immigrant communities and the health clinics that serve them tell Sahan Journal that anecdotally, the Delta variant appears to be causing an increase in infections. And they say the solution to beating Delta is still the same as before: convincing the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. 

Across the state, the latest seven-day average of new infections show cases among Black Minnesotans at close to 40 per 100,000, or nearly twice that of white Minnesotans, according to an analysis of state data by MPR News. The Minnesota Department of Health does not break down COVID-19 by immigration status.

At multiple health clinics across the Twin Cities that serve Black immigrants, staffers say that both requests for COVID-19 tests and vaccination rates are up in recent weeks. That is a likely indicator that they are following statewide trends of an increase in infections, or at least a growing concern over the Delta variant among unvaccinated people. 

At Axis Medical Center, more than 90 percent of patients are people of color and nearly 70 percent are Black. Most are immigrants. Vaccinations administered at Axis’s three Twin Cities clinics peaked in March and April at roughly 150 each day, according to Mohamed Beshir, a clinical assistant who leads Axis’s vaccine rollout. But by June, the number of patients getting vaccinated at Axis plummeted. Some days, no one would come to get shots. 

But this started changing in mid-July, and now Axis is back to giving out between 20-30 shots each day. The surge from the Delta variant is prompting some people who were otherwise hesitant to get vaccinated, Mohamed said. 

“Everybody is starting to talk about how the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire, and more people are wearing masks in public again,” he said. “It’s visible. People know something is going on, and that is maybe the driving force behind the vaccine rate.”

Despite the climbing numbers of new cases, infections are very rare among the vaccinated. Since the start of the pandemic, so-called breakthrough cases make up just 0.19 percent of all confirmed infections, according to MDH. That’s why Axis, and clinics like People’s Center Clinic & Services and Community-University Health Care Center, all of which are federally qualified health centers and serve large immigrant populations, are keeping their main focus on getting shots in arms. 

Each clinic significantly reduced testing since the vaccine became available. Axis stopped testing altogether and is unlikely to start again, according Jonathan James, the clinic’s epidemiologist. People’s Center, however, does plan to ramp up testing again, according to spokesperson Paula Guinn. 

Vaccination rates are still lower in Minnesota for people of color, excluding Asians, compared with the state’s white population. This probably explains why new cases are highest in Minnesota’s Black, Latino, and American Indian populations and lowest in the state’s White and Asian populations

Axis recently identified 200 of its patients who live within five miles of the clinic in Stevens Square in Minneapolis and were listed in the system as not vaccinated. After the clinic made contact with them, 60 percent of these patients were either already vaccinated or made appointments to get vaccinated, James said. Those remaining were holdouts.

“The rest say, ‘I don’t want it,’ ‘I’m afraid of it,’ ‘I’ll call you later,’ or they don’t answer the phone,” James said. 

The reasons vary. Disinformation is still a factor. Mohamed said that the biggest reasons he hears from the vaccine hesitant are myths that the shot has a chip that allows the government to track people, that it causes infertility in women, and that the shot can give people cancer. 

At People’s Center, staffers haven’t necessarily seen a new uptick in positive cases, but they have seen an increase in requests for tests, Guinn said. 

CUHCC as well is seeing more people request COVID-19 tests, said Sara Bolnick, the clinic’s director of advancement. The clinic’s data shows it has fully vaccinated 3,000 out of 11,000 documented patients. While the number may seem very low, Bolnick said people shouldn’t assume the remaining 8,000 are all unvaccinated. Some may have gotten their shots at community events, through other providers, or at drug stores. 

Still, Bolnick said CUHCC’s Black and Latino patients—who make up the vast majority of the people the clinic serves—are testing positive for the virus at higher rates than white patients. That’s remained true through the entirety of the pandemic. 

CUHCC’s patients who refuse to get vaccinated give complex and varied reasons, and each has their own unique way of coming around to the vaccine. 

Bolnick pointed to a recent tweet from CUHCC Chief Clinical Officer Roli Dwivedi, in which  she shared how one of her patients decided to get the vaccine after five months of Dwivedi urging this patient to do so.

“We’re really just playing the long game with our patients here,” Bolnick said.

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...