Some Minnesota health care systems have begun COVID-19 vaccination outreach programs to communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

The efforts come as there is growing awareness that racial and ethnic minorities are being vaccinated at lower rates, based on reports from states that do collect that information.

"The populations of people that are getting access to the vaccines are not right now the populations who need it the most," said Nneka Sederstrom, chief health equity officer at Hennepin Healthcare.

Last week, Sederstrom approached Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis about hosting Hennepin's first COVID-19 community outreach clinic. The church immediately agreed and spread the word among its parishioners and local community partners, including a nearby low-income housing project.

By Thursday, all 125 slots were filled.

Michael Ricks, 65, who has been unable to get the shot from his regular health clinic, couldn't get an appointment at first, but one opened up at the last minute.

"I feel like I'm on the way now to do the right thing," he said shortly after getting jabbed with the needle. "It is about letting other people know that it is OK to take it by being an example."

Like other African Americans, he's seen friends and family fall seriously ill due to COVID-19, including some who have died.

As a deacon at a church in St. Paul that is doing some events, such as funerals, he felt it was important to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"A lot of people think that it might not be real," he said. "It's real."

Last weekend, M Health Fairview started its COVID-19 vaccination outreach, building on a 15-year-old initiative to partner with community organizations to give free, no-barrier immunizations.

The program reaches many thousands. In 2020, 6,700 people, most of whom identify as people of color, received the flu vaccine. Without the clinics, many would have needed to pay cash to get the vaccine as about 47% were uninsured.

"People want to get protected and want to protect their loved ones," said Ingrid Johansen, M Health Fairview manager of clinical care and outreach. "They are having a really hard time accessing the vaccine, particularly the communities that we serve where there may be language barriers or distrust with the medical community."

Working with St. Mary's Clinics of St. Paul, 200 people age 75 and over — most of them Spanish speakers — received COVID-19 vaccines last weekend.

Next up will be eight events starting next week arranged with the help of the StairStep Foundation and several African American churches. Johansen is hearing a lot of interest.

"We have multiple requests a day to do this," she said.

Health systems are also making efforts to reach out to their elderly patients to arrange COVID-19 vaccine appointments, including for those who are at higher risk.

COVID-19 hospitalization rates for racial and ethnic minorities are four times higher.

For white Minnesotans, the hospitalization rate is 251 per 100,000 residents, according to Minnesota Department of Health data.

For American Indians, the rate is 1,040. For Black residents, it is 1,106. For Latinos, the rate is higher: 1,231. All of the data are adjusted to account for differences in the age profiles of each population.

At HealthPartners, the organization has focused on patients at clinics in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington that serve the affected groups.

Dr. Eduardo Medina, a family physician at the Minneapolis clinic, said the historic inequities in the health care system have not retreated in the age of COVID-19.

"What we should be doing is going to the patient," he said. "We have to have this equity lens in order to successfully treat the pandemic. Good COVID policy is equitable COVID policy."

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week that the state will be setting equity performance goals for health care systems and pharmacies. They will also be asked to draw up plans for community outreach.

"We are doing a lot of work on this front," she said Thursday. "We acknowledge that much more needs to be done to respond to the realities of health inequities across the nation and especially here in our own home state."

State health officials said they are working on using existing information systems to produce data to measure statewide equity performance.

Allina Health said it will begin an initiative soon.

"In the next weeks we will open vaccine clinics in neighborhoods most accessible to underserved communities including our East Lake Street (Minneapolis) clinic, West St. Paul clinic, Bandana Square (St. Paul) clinic and Faribault clinic," the company said in a written statement.

Hennepin Health also plans more outreach using lessons it learned at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

Pastor Elijah McDavid III, who was named senior pastor last September, said the vaccination clinic on Thursday was the first time he met some of his 400 parishioners in person. The church has been doing most services online.

"We have had many COVID deaths within our congregation," he said. "We welcomed this opportunity.

For Phillip Larkins the event ended a several-week wait to get the COVID-19 shot. He had signed up for the state's lottery, along with more than 200,000 seniors.

"It was a mess," said Larkins. "When you don't make it they put your name back in again and you keep going and going."

"This was a better option for me. They did it right in the community."

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192