M Health Fairview hosts free flu shots at Riverside Plaza on September 24, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Mohamed Ismail was scared when he got his flu shot last fall. But this year, he did his best to let go of his fear and face the possible pain of the needle stick without flinching. 

This time it wasn’t so bad. 

“You just feel a little pinch, it doesn’t even hurt,” said Mohamed, who is 10 years old. 

As Mohamed tried to coach his six-year-old brother through a shot of his own, their mother, Halima Elmi, explained how she brings her family for vaccines every flu season. She also encourages her friends, family, and neighbors to do the same. 

“I tell them, ‘You have to come,’” Halima said. 

Mohamed’s family was one of several to take advantage of a free flu shot during a recent drive at Minneapolis’s Riverside Plaza, home to a large East African population. The event was part of the Minnesota Immunization Networking Initiative, a season-long flu-vaccine effort from M Health Fairview that targets underserved communities. 

Staffers had 200 flu shots on hand and were prepared to pick up more if needed. Last year, the MINI program gave more than 6,000 shots for free. 

This season’s flu-shot drive came on the same day as M Health Fairview publicly unveiled its remodeled Health Commons center in Riverside Plaza, which will open later this fall.

Both efforts likely brought relief to a neighborhood that’s been hit disproportionately by the COVID-19 pandemic and that also saw the shuttering of its HealthPartners clinic earlier this year. 

Health Commons originally opened in 2014. While it doesn’t feature full-time doctors on the premises, it serves as a kind of one-stop shop for free health screenings and health care coordination, said Nawal Hirsi, the site’s community engagement manager.

“If someone’s not able to get into their primary care clinic or they were discharged from the hospital and really are trying to make sense of what the after care should be, our health care staff here are able to help them understand,” said Nawal. 

Health Commons closed in March and its doors have stayed shut during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it plans to reopen in November with expanded services. These will include a new full-time nurse and access to mental health and addiction treatment specialists. The center is also adding a kiosk for patients to participate in virtual healthcare appointments if they can’t meet their doctor in person.  

Predicting health outcomes by zip code

The unveiling event drew attendance and praise from local public officials including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, State Representative Mohamud Noor, and Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman. 

“We know you can quite literally predict health outcomes based on the zip code in which you were born,” Frey said. “And what Health Commons has been doing for years is making sure that people here in the Cedar–Riverside community have access to the necessary health services that they do in fact deserve.” 

Once Health Commons reopens, its staff will begin an education drive in the community to break the stigma of mental health problems. For patients battling addiction or seeking recovery, Health Commons will send certified peer support specialists, many of whom are going through recovery themselves. 

Asha Hassan, center, will serve as full-time nurse at Health Commons. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Asha Hassan will serve as Health Commons’ full-time nurse. Asha is originally from Somalia and has worked for nearly 40 years in places including Texas, North Carolina, and Maryland. She most recently worked in home health-care settings and said she’s eager to help coordinate similar visits for people in the Cedar–Riverside area. 

“It will be very helpful for the community because elderly people who cannot go to the clinic or are very sick and don’t have transportation can come here,” Asha said. 

She anticipated most of her immediate time will go toward educating the community about things like COVID-19, social distancing, and flu shots. 

With expanded services, Asha is preparing herself for many patients. In 2019, Health Commons received more than 6,500 visits.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...