Farhiya Aden receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Minneapolis Convention Center on February 5, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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As spring approached and Minnesota was three months into its vaccine rollout this past year, people of color made up just 10 percent of those who had been vaccinated—much less than the 21 percent they make of the state’s overall population. 

Since then, the vaccination rate for people of color has grown. It’s now at 19 percent of the state’s vaccinated population. That’s still a bit lower than their overall share of the population, but marks progress nonetheless. 

Throughout the year, I closely followed the ups and downs of the many attempts to distribute the vaccine equitably. The highs came with community events like the vaccine drives in Owatonna targeting seasonal migrant workers. The lows came with reports of pharmacies turning away undocumented immigrants in line for the shot for needless reasons.

Now, with Minnesota seemingly between two waves of infections caused by the Delta and Omicron variants, the state is once again at an uncertain juncture in the two-year global pandemic and its efforts to ensure as many people are vaccinated as possible. 

Back in March, when Minnesota first released the lopsided statistics on vaccination by race, Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician for Park Nicollet and medical director for the state’s Medicaid program, told Sahan Journal this: “Anything lower than demographic representation should trigger swift and notable changes.”

Around that time, Chomilo took part in a state panel to develop guidelines ensuring people of color wouldn’t be left behind. Chomilo and Dr. Nneka Sederstrom, chief health equity officer for Hennepin Healthcare who also served on the panel, ended up writing a letter to Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm expressing frustration over the state’s approach, which consisted of getting as many shots in as many arms as quickly as possible. This strategy ignored how some of the state’s most vulnerable populations may not have easy access to places where the vaccine was available, they argued. 

“Right now speed is winning and equity is losing,” Chomilo and Sederstrom’s letter read. 

One example was how the state’s online vaccine connector, which the health department set up to alert people for when vaccines were available near them, was for a long time only available in English. Critics also lambasted the connector for its complex wording and confusing captchas—the security questions that require the user to enter a combination of letters and numbers.

All of these issues prompted people like Carmen Velasco, whose primary language is Spanish, to give up on the connector altogether. 

Problems occurred outside of state government, as well. Sometimes, clinics offering vaccines turned away undocumented immigrants for not having a U.S government-issued ID. Such practices, health department officials said, broke state guidelines. 

Two weeks after the state first released vaccination data by race, the department tapped Chomilo to take on a new role: Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccine equity director. In this role, Chomilo would make recommendations directly to Malcolm on strategies to get more communities of color vaccinated.

Terecita Ascension says a Cub Foods clerk wouldn’t vaccine her because she didn’t have a U.S.-issued ID. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

One approach Chomilo advocated was to target populations living in communities that ranked high on the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). This is a federal tool that uses zip codes to measure communities’ socioeconomic status. Communities with high SVI scores may contain higher than average poverty rates and lack easy access to basic resources like grocery stores and public transportation.

The state indeed ended up using SVI numbers to target vaccination outreach. Starting in April, the health department and the Minnesota Department of Human Services partnered with eight health care organizations to do just this.

In particular, the health care organizations started tracking unvaccinated patients in high SVI areas and used messaging from the state to urge vaccination through phone calls, text messages, emails, and billboards. 

From April through August, the partnership led to more than 640,000 outreach attempts, according to a recent health department report on the matter, mostly through mass phone calls and texting. During that time, vaccination rates for existing patients living in the highest SVI ranking communities increased by 55 percent, according to the report. 

“While no direct link can be made to the impact of this partnership on vaccination rates, these results suggest that the partnership’s outreach work was one of several contributing factors to improving the rate of at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccination among Minnesotans in high SVI ZIP code areas,” the state report reads. 

Some communities made marked progress in vaccination throughout the year. For example, in early March, Latinos in Minnesota accounted for just 1.6 percent of the state’s vaccinated population. As of mid-December, Latinos make up 5.1 percent of Minnesota’s vaccinated population, just below their 5.4 percent makeup of the state’s total population.

The state’s vaccinated Black population still remains slightly below its share of the overall population—5.9 percent to 6.5 percent respectively. 

Throughout most of the year, the state’s Asian communities consistently ranked as the most vaccinated population in Minnesota by race. Today, close to 80 percent of eligible Asian Americans in Minnesota have received at least one shot of a vaccine against COVID-19. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than Minnesota’s white population. 

Luis Valdez, far left, and his family pose for a photo at a vaccination event in Owatonna, Minn. on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

But the American Indian population remained relatively low. As of this writing, that number is 56 percent, lagging Minnesota’s White, Black, and Latino populations. 

Across all groups, the number of those who completed the vaccine, which the state defines as two shots for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or one shot for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, is roughly 6 percentage points lower than for those with just one vaccine. 

Now, with Omicron on the rise, health experts are urging all eligible to get booster shots this winter. So far, the number of Minnesotans who have received third dose shots is fairly low, totalling 1.5 million people or roughly 27 percent of the state’s population. The state has not released third dose shot data by race so far. 

What approach works best to promote vaccines? Bringing the shots directly to the community, particularly in trusted, familiar settings. That’s at least according to Teto Wilson, who’s been holding weekly vaccination clinics at his north Minneapolis barber shop since July. Since then, he estimates between 600 and 1,000 people got vaccinated at this business. 

“What works, at least for us, is just being right here anchored in the community,” Wilson said. “A place that people trust, where they can ask questions to get over some of their concerns and inhibitions by talking to people that look just like them.” 

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...