Hani Jacobson, community health nurse, advocates for better COVID-19 care in St. Cloud’s Somali community.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of short videos and written pieces examining the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. The project is produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

As millions of Americans scrambled to receive their COVID-19 vaccine doses at the dawn of the new year, Hani Jacobson started hearing unsubstantiated claims about the immunization making the rounds in St. Cloud’s Somali community. 

Some people, she said, argued that the vaccines contain pork products, raising concerns about whether they’re permissible in Islam. Others claimed that the vaccines cause infertility in young people, especially women. 

By the time the vaccine rollout unfolded, Hani—a community health nurse at CentraCare Health in St. Cloud—was several months into an outreach effort to educate people of color about the deadly effects of COVID-19. 

During the pandemic’s initial months, her focus included informing people about the importance of social distancing and sharing the latest updates on COVID-19 cases. When testing became more available, Hani encouraged community members to get tested immediately if they had noticed symptoms or had come into contact with individuals who tested positive. 

In the process, Hani partnered with a network of community members, including religious leaders, business owners, and nonprofit organizations. She helped disseminate information through home visits and local ethnic media organizations.

In addition, Hani has served in the Somali Community COVID-19 Task Force, which was created in the wake of the pandemic to bring to Somali residents in St. Cloud the latest official news on the virus and encourage ways to combat its spread.      

In December, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the McKnight Foundation recognized Hani for her “outstanding [and] largely unrecognized contributions” to Minnesota. She became one of four recipients of the Unsung Hero Award, which comes with a cash prize of $10,000 from the McKnight Foundation.

As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center, Sahan Journal spoke with Hani Jacobson about her work in St. Cloud and what she’s doing to debunk COVID-19 disinformation in communities of color, especially among Somalis.

Congratulations on your recent Unsung Hero Award. It sounds like you received the award for the work you’ve done around COVID-19. But you’ve been an active member in the St. Cloud Somali community for years now.

I’ve been involved in this advocacy work since 2005, when I first came to St. Cloud. The city had a small Somali population.

Right after I moved here, I got a job as a medical interpreter. This meant traveling around the city and providing my service to refugee and immigrant patients at hospitals and clinics and government centers. It didn’t take me long to notice the widespread racism and Islamophobia against Somalis. 

It was then that I decided to stand up for my community. As someone who arrived in the U.S. earlier than many in the community—my family came to the United States in the early 1990s—I felt like I was responsible for our new refugee families. 

I found myself not only interpreting but also advocating for them. It didn’t matter whether I was at the front desk, or in the labor or delivery room. I was always going beyond my duty to make sure their needs were met. 

Could you share what you remember of that mistreatment?

One day, I was interpreting for a Somali woman at the hospital. She was a little late for her appointment. Of course, one can be late for 10 or 15 minutes and still be seen. Plus, the patient was late only because her medical transportation was running late. So it was something beyond her control. 

But at the check-in, the receptionist became rude and condescending towards the patient. She said: “Do you not know how things work in this country? We take appointments seriously here.” 

So I had to speak for the patient and remind the receptionist of the rules of the hospital—that patients can still be seen if they’re late for a few minutes. I also explained to her that it wasn’t her fault that she was late. 

I also witnessed other incidents where doctors and nurses rushed procedures when patients clearly didn’t understand what was happening. Even if it was an emergency procedure, the patient has the right to understand what is going on. So I advocated for the patients when I saw this.

All those things happened while you were an interpreter. Then, some years later, you became a registered nurse.   

My experience as an interpreter inspired me to go for healthcare because I saw a need in that department. I also knew that becoming a nurse would give me a bigger platform to ensure that people understand their treatment plans. 

You’re now a community health nurse at CentraCare. What does your job entail? 

My job is to promote health and wellness in ethnic and minority communities. I have even a bigger platform to reach out to communities through our local Somali community leaders, our local Somali radio, and Somali television stations. 

How did the pandemic shift your priorities?

When COVID started, I was in my current position for less than four months. I was so excited about it. I’ve always advocated for a position like mine to bring health to the community through community networking and bridge the gaps in health disparities. 

At the time, almost everything was done online. So we saw an informational disparity in communities. They were experiencing technology barriers, language barriers, cultural barriers. 

There was so much fear. Food was flying off the shelves. Just so much scarcity was happening, which brought back so much PTSD for our community members who had gone through war. They know what it’s like to have no food or water. 

We knew that we needed to empower them with the correct information. To say, “Yes, COVID is here, but what’s COVID? Can you safely get food? If you’re diagnosed with COVID, you still have options to get food by calling this number. You can call the county. Somebody is going to bring you groceries and everything you need.” 

I did some home visits. If a family member tested positive, for example, I would explain to them how that person could quarantine while living with their families. I would bring them plastic plates and forks that they can use. If they had only one bathroom to share, I encouraged them to keep it clean and disinfect after use. 

We visited local businesses and passed out information on where to get tested and where to get help. We also did a lot of work with the local mosques and brought donated masks to them. 

Minnesota—and the country—is now in a different phase. Everybody is talking about vaccines now. I’m sure you had to change gears.  

My work has completely shifted to vaccines. I’m now working on educating our community about the importance of vaccines and their possible side effects. I’m also hosting and facilitating meetings with community stakeholders and working with mosques to inform people about vaccine disinformation.

What are some commonly-held misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines in the Somali community? 

Many people are saying that the vaccines have pork products in them. We’re telling them that there’s no pork in the vaccine and that there’s nothing that religiously prevents you from getting vaccinated.  

Many also think that the vaccine causes fertility issues in women—which is not valid. We don’t have any evidence to support that. 

Others think that the vaccine is going to make them sick. 

So we’re just sharing facts. I’m 100 percent supportive of people making their own decisions. But I want people to make informed decisions. I want them to have the facts and then come to a conclusion, whether it’s right for them or not.

You recently received the Unsung Hero Award. What was your first reaction when you heard the news? 

I was very surprised because I knew that everybody in health care was all-hands-on-deck. We were all working our butts off. But I was also very appreciative that there are people in this community who are paying attention to the work we’re doing.

I also want to recognize the work of my team. This wasn’t just something that I did by myself. It was a group effort. Somali leaders in St. Cloud did a tremendous job just meeting every week— sometimes twice a week—to strategize and get the latest information to the community. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...