Kesha Tanabe spent months urging her friend, Stacey Danner, to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — to set aside skepticism about whether the vaccines had been tested for safety in Black men like him and suspicion over a health care system with a history of racial bias.
But by the time Danner agreed, he was returning from a business trip and already suffering a coronavirus infection. The 46-year-old died of COVID-19 on July 11 after prolonged treatment in intensive care at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
"I believe and hear everything that has been said about disproportionate access to health care," Tanabe said, "and I want Black- and brown-bodied people to grab this bull by the horns and get the shot. Do it for the people like me that will have to take care of you when you are sick. Do it for the people you will leave behind (if you die). Do it for the children that count on you to show up for them. But just do it."
Tanabe and medical leaders spoke Wednesday at HCMC hoping to redirect the debate over COVID-19 vaccination — from politics and social issues to protecting communities and friends from the coronavirus and delta variant that has sparked a fourth pandemic wave.
On Wednesday, Minnesota reported 614 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, including 171 needing intensive care. The state also reported six more COVID-19 deaths and an additional 1,436 cases, raising Minnesota's pandemic toll to 7,817 deaths and 651,388 infections.
The speakers at HCMC said it is important to acknowledge the concerns that are keeping people from getting vaccinated, including unique worries in communities of color. Some are angry because racial minorities were hit hard in earlier waves of the pandemic when they continued to work in low-wage, front-line occupations that put them at risk. Others resent the pressure to get vaccinated, believing it is motivated by a desire to protect the white majority.
Dr. Aaron Robinson, an HCMC emergency physician, related to those concerns from his upbringing on an American Indian reservation in Wisconsin. However, he said it is frustrating to see so many unvaccinated people coming into the emergency department with COVID-19, and heartbreaking to see so many infections in young people of color.
"I understand there is a lot of fear about the vaccine," he said, "but this is far outweighed by the benefit of the vaccine that is preventing hospitalization, preventing critical illness, and preventing death."
Since June, 60% of patients admitted to HCMC beds with COVID-19 have been Black, and 20% have been Hispanic — a disparity even for an urban trauma center that treats a high volume of racial minorities. Roughly 40% of patients admitted to HCMC with COVID-19 since that time have been younger than 45.
Minnesota's first-dose COVID-19 vaccination rate of 70.6% among eligible people 12 and older exceeds the national average. However, that progress varies by race, from 78.7% in Asian Americans to 66.2% in whites to 57.1% in Blacks and 55.1% in American Indians.
WCCO radio personality Sheletta Brundidge, who is Black, said she had no interest in COVID-19 vaccination because of prior encounters with doctors who discounted her medical conditions and accused her of just seeking pain pills. Then her 15-year-old son reminded her of the toll on her children if she died.
"It was my son reminding me that, if I call myself a community activist, I can't just stay in the house and hope everybody else gets vaccinated," Brundidge said. "I have to do my part, but more than that, I have to do it [even if I'm] afraid. I am scared. I don't know what's in the vaccine. I don't trust hospitals or doctors. But if I want to stay alive with the surge in the delta variant, then I have to get vaccinated."
Studies have shown a declining rate of vaccine effectiveness against preventing any infections amid the emergence of the delta variant, which is believed to be causing more than 90% of Minnesota's new infections. However, the studies show that the vaccines remain strongly protective against severe COVID-19 illnesses, hospitalizations or deaths, which is what federal regulators approved them for in the first place.
Minneapolis-based Allina Health reported 125 patients with COVID-19 admitted to inpatient beds in its Twin Cities-area hospitals Aug. 29. Ninety hadn't been vaccinated; 30 were fully vaccinated, and five had received only the first of two doses.
Robinson said he had encountered only a few vaccinated patients with COVID-19 in the ER and that their level of illness and need for hospital admission was much lower.
"The people that have had breakthrough cases that have been fully vaccinated already complain about nothing more than a sore throat or maybe a headache," he said. "They never get admitted, and they are the people coming in just to get tested because they are having some symptoms and had an exposure."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744