As in many areas of American life, COVID-19 vaccination rates can reveal racial disparities. Although white Minnesotans make up about 82% of the state population, they have received about 91% of all the state's vaccinations thus far, according to the first racial data released last week by the Department of Health (MDH).
But it's important to understand Minnesota's demographics. Just 5% of the state's senior population are Black, Indigenous and people of color. So given the state's initial focus on vaccinating those over 65 — and because so far occupations that skew white have been prioritized — it stands to reason that higher numbers of white Minnesotans overall have been inoculated.
Still, as eligibility for vaccines expands, racial equity must be addressed because COVID infection and death rates are higher among people of color. To that end, MDH is now requiring racial data collection at vaccine sites and rightly recognizes that challenge ahead.
"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," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm pledged.
Some of those strategies are already wisely in place. Vaccine has been made available through the churches, community centers, health clinics and pharmacies that often serve communities of color. For example, COVID-19 vaccines shipped to the Brooklyn Center Walmart Pharmacy over the next three weeks will be targeted to racial and ethnic minorities.
And MDH said mobile vaccination units will be deployed by the state, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield will deliver vaccines to more isolated communities in outstate and rural areas.
According to the Minnesota Daily student newspaper, last month hundreds of University of Minnesota medical professionals, students and representatives of other organizations signed a petition addressed to Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials calling for MDH to prioritize people of color.
"Vaccine distribution phases must recognize that prioritization by age alone exacerbates disparities and misrepresents the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 among Black, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic populations who are younger on average yet face higher risk of exposure and death," the petition said.
Help on that front is on the way. This week, Walz said vaccine supplies have increased enough to significantly expand the eligibility pool to include people with a range of chronic illnesses such as sickle cell disease and chronic heart and lung conditions.
More front-line workers in agricultural areas, airport operations, food service and grocery workers and those who live in multigenerational households are also now eligible. Those are groups in which people of color are overrepresented in Minnesota.
The 1.8 million people added to the eligibility list this week should have access to vaccines by mid-April, Walz said. Community groups, churches and the health care community should help get the word out about availability while also addressing any lingering vaccine skepticism in minority communities.