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As the holy month of Ramadan begins, religious leaders know that some of the observances that come with it will bring Minnesota’s Muslims together in crowded spaces.
So several local Islamic leaders, led by Iman Asad Zaman, recently launched a campaign to vaccinate every local Muslim adult who wants a shot in the arm.
“I just want people protected before Ramadan comes,” said Zaman, who is executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN). “There is a time crunch here.”
Zaman cites one observance in particular that could spread COVID-19. During the holy month of Ramadan, some Muslims go to the mosque to break the fast after the sunsets for an evening meal called iftar. A few hours later, the faithful perform special congregational nightly prayers called Taraweeh that can take as long as two hours.
“In prior years, that is the busiest time in the mosque,” Zaman said. “People overcrowd.”
Health experts and government officials are characterizing the current battle with COVID-19 as a race between vaccinations and the spread of variants likely to cause another spike in cases.
For the Muslim community during Ramadan the vaccine urgency is acute. “Here’s the bottom line: People are going to be at the mosques,” Zaman said. “You could have another spike in infections.”
So last month, Zaman and his colleagues at the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN), where he serves as executive director, reached out to the governor’s office to make their case to prioritize Muslims for vaccines. In the end, MAS-MN staffers convinced the state to grant them 7,000 vaccines to distribute in 16 mosques across the state this week.
Kou Thao, director of the Center for Health Equity at the Minnesota Health Department, said the state agreed to supply MAS-MN with the vaccines as part of its efforts to meet vaccine equity needs.
‘We’re committed to ensuring everyone who is eligible for the vaccine can get it,” Thao said. “In some cases, that may mean bringing the vaccine directly to the community.”
MDH also released guidelines last week on safe observation of Ramadan during the COVID-19 era.
After securing the supply of vaccines, MAS-MN opened up registration for vaccine appointments online. Beyond getting Muslims vaccinated before Ramadan, Zaman said the drive is also intended to curb two other challenges facing the community: Vaccine inequity and vaccine hesitancy.
Hesitancy among some is not stopping others from signing up for appointments at a breakneck pace, Zaman said. He attributed some of the interest to the 1,000 shots that two mosques distributed last Friday.
“We were dealing with a lot more hesitancy then,” he said. “But now, 1,000 people have shots in their arms, and they’re talking to their friends and relatives.”
Some area mosques not a part of the MAS-MN vaccine drive are hosting vaccine drives in other ways. Dar Uloom Islamic Center, for example, is one of two St. Paul mosques that are offering a total of 400 vaccines through Ramsey County Public Health this Friday.
Chris Burns, a spokesperson for Ramsey County, said that part of the reason for the effort is to get local Muslims vaccinated before daily fasting during Ramadan begins.
“We’re doing this so that people during this time will not have to deal with the discomfort that sometimes comes with getting a shot while they are simultaneously fasting, or having fatigue from not being fully hydrated during that time,” Burns said.
While the Ramsey County-sponsored events this Friday are distributing the Moderna two-dose shot, the effort from MAS-MN is using the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Zaman said this was to prevent people from having to get a second shot during Ramadan. The board of MAS-MN discussed whether they should push for a specific vaccine for a long time before making this decision.
“We feel all three vaccines are good,” Zaman said. “The reason we requested J&J is because it’s one shot and you’re done.”
Though the MAS-MN effort is aimed at the state’s Muslim population, which Zaman said numbers between 150,000 and 200,000 people, the event won’t turn down non-Muslims from registering. There’s also no way for MAS-MN to keep tabs on which registrants are Muslim and which aren’t, Zaman said.
“The vaccines are for everybody,” he said. “If somebody signs up, they sign up. If they come, they are served.”
Though all listed vaccine appointments on MAS-MN’s website were filled as of press time, Zaman is hoping to add more. He requested an additional 3,000 shots from the state at the beginning of this week. As of Wednesday morning, his request was still pending. He took one thing as a possible good sign: The state hadn’t yet rejected it.
At 5:00 p.m. Thursday, April 8, Islamic scholar Dr. Hatem al Haj will answer questions about taking the COVID-19 vaccine during Ramadan. That live webinar event, will be hosted by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the local nonprofit Building Blocks of Islam, and Well International.