COVID-19 vaccinations for Minnesota's Black, Hispanic and Asian populations lag behind shots given to the state's white population, according to data released Friday.
State officials said the findings set the stage for new efforts to target racial and ethnic minorities to close the gaps, including sending vaccines to more clinics and independent pharmacies that serve communities that have been severely affected by COVID-19.
Health advocates said decisions made by state officials months ago were responsible for creating the disparities because vaccine equity was not considered in choosing priority groups.
"Recently it seems that the decisions from the governor's office on how to allocate vaccine have been political in nature," said Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn, board chair of the advocacy group Our Stories Our Health. "We are focusing on a population over 65 that is predominantly white."
Only 5% of Minnesota's Black, Indigenous and people of color population is age 65 and older, according to Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower. Altogether, 93% of that age group is white and not Hispanic.
One reason is that communities of color have shorter life expectancies.
"By looking at it simply by age, we know that Black and immigrant communities, especially American Indian or Indigenous communities, people in those communities don't live as long," Lichtsinn said.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm agreed Friday that initial priority groups have been overwhelmingly white.
"It confirms what I think community members have been saying and what our own sense was," Malcolm said. "We will also work with the community, health care and public health partners in a way that specifically addresses those systemic inequities and works to close the current gaps that we see in the data."
It is the first time that state officials have released racial and ethnic data on vaccinations, joining 41 other states that have already made the information available.
Hispanic Minnesotans account for 4.8% of the state's population age 15 or older, but have received 1.7% of the vaccines.
There are similar gaps for Asians, who got 3% of the vaccines but represent 5% of the population and for Black Minnesotans, who account for 6% of the population but 3.5% of those vaccinated.
While 81.6% of the state's residents are white, they have received 90.7% of the vaccines.
Disparities among the Indigenous population were not as wide, helped by the fact that the federal government has shipped doses to the Indian Health Service, which has had a good track record of vaccinating those on reservations. However, there are reports that vaccination problems remain in the urban areas.
The data were compiled by a collaboration of 10 Minnesota health care systems that used electronic medical records to match the state's database of COVID-19 vaccinations to racial and ethnicity data on file. Other health systems are expected to join the collaboration.
The results capture about 89% of the nearly 1.5 million first and second doses administered in the state, said Hennepin Healthcare's Dr. Tyler Winkelman, who is leading the effort.
The system is also able to capture vaccinations given at pharmacies, community clinics and state-sponsored vaccination sites if the patient has visited one of the large participating health systems.
Winkelman said the collaboration will be used for more than producing data, but also so health care systems can work together to close the gaps.
"Measuring the disparities is a first step in ensuring equitable distribution of these lifesaving vaccines," he said.
"What you don't want to have in a collaboration is for 10 systems to all be duplicating effort and all going to the same block to do vaccines because they are not talking to each other," said Winkelman.
More vaccine equity data will be coming online because the state Health Department told vaccinators on Thursday that they are now required to include race and ethnicity information when submitting vaccination reports.
Soon after vaccinations began in Minnesota in December, state officials said racial and ethnic vaccination information could not be collected due to a state law that required vaccinators to get consent from those getting the shots.
A few weeks ago, health officials reversed that position and said the data could be sent to the state's vaccination database, based on a new interpretation of the law by agency lawyers.
The federal government will ship COVID-19 vaccines to the Brooklyn Center Walmart Pharmacy over the next three weeks that will be targeted to racial and ethnic minorities. The approach will be expanded to other pharmacies as vaccine supplies increase.
The Health Department said mobile vaccination units will be deployed by several state agencies and Blue Cross and Blue Shield to deliver vaccines to hard-to-reach communities.
So far, 975,781 Minnesotans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is about 17.5% of the state's population. Of those, 516,422 have received the required number of doses.
The state's vaccine dashboard now shows that 63 doses of the new one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered as of Wednesday, the first day that they arrived.
Another 813 new COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths were announced by health officials Friday, bringing the pandemic total to 488,170 infections and 6,534 fatalities.
Six of the newly reported deaths were residents of long-term care facilities.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen 15% in the past week, with 224 people in hospitals, including 57 in intensive care.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192