The COVID-19 vaccine may be on the way, but some who belong to communities of color are reluctant to take it.
"Unfortunately, the communities of people who are most affected by the pandemic are also more likely to be the most hesitant about a vaccine," said Dr. Ana Núñez, vice dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Black and Hispanic communities historically have had lower flu vaccination rates, driven partly by barriers to accessing medical care but also by a reluctance to trust institutions that have subjected minorities to unethical experiments and discrimination.
"There is definitely mistrust among the African American community in the health care system, clinicians and even the federal government," said Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, a preventive cardiologist and health disparities researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
"This has now been manifested as the resistance that we are seeing with the COVID-19 vaccine."
Recently, 75 of 100 African Americans surveyed at churches in the Twin Cities and Rochester said they either wouldn't get the COVID-19 vaccine or were unsure they would, Brewer said.
"It really shows that we have much work to do around getting the vaccine and also addressing their concerns," she said.
For eight years, Brewer has been partnering with a network of over 120 African American churches in the Twin Cities and Rochester as part of an effort to improve heart health. The project quickly pivoted to COVID-19 education and prevention after the first cases hit the state in March.
"Early on, there was a myth that African Americans were somehow immune to contract COVID-19," Brewer said. "We quickly saw that that was not the case."
The coalition provided churches with safety information, supplied masks and conducted education campaigns on staying healthy and preventing new infections.
"We don't have as many of our older members coming out, but we are able to reach more people with making sure that we are COVID ready and that we are taking the proper procedures to open up our building," said Brenda Granison of New Creations Ministries Church of God in Christ in Minneapolis.
The church turned self-care into community care, launching a food distribution program that helped those losing their jobs because of COVID-19 closures.
"People don't have the finances to go out and purchase food," said Granison. "People are coming in droves. We had people that would travel upwards of a couple of hours just to come pick up food."
The COVID-19 education campaign was successful because it built on an existing partnership. "It takes a concerted effort among academic medical centers and our public health organizations to build relationships," Brewer said.
Núñez said vaccine education efforts can be targeted through trusted information sources such as radio shows and newspapers that cater to communities of color, as well as beauty salons and barbershops that have been shown to be effective at spreading health information.
The history of health care discrimination and unethical behavior against African Americans is long and varied. One high-profile example is the Tuskegee experiment, when treatment was withheld from hundreds of Black men living with syphilis over 40 years.
Another came in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, unknowingly provided her cancer cells without consent, forming a basis for cancer research that many companies profited from.
"The truth is that medicine as a whole has not had the sort of history to brag about," said Núñez. "I think the first thing to do is acknowledge that those things were real, those things were wrong."
In Minnesota, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous residents are two to three times more likely to die from COVID-19, and three to four times more likely to get infected with the coronavirus, according to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health.
A rare but crippling inflammatory disease in children linked to COVID-19 also has hit communities of color the hardest. "In Minnesota, 67% of cases have been Black or Hispanic," state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said Thursday. All 43 of those cases in the state needed hospitalization, with half going into intensive care.
"Even though it is a very rare syndrome, we are concerned," she said. "We don't want to see our children in the ICU."
State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said the Health Department has reached out to community leaders and organizations "to understand the needs of and information gaps in a variety of communities around the state" about the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We intend to continue this close collaboration moving forward as we plan for and begin to distribute the vaccine in Minnesota," she said.
Thursday's COVID report
The COVID-19 pandemic claimed another 89 lives, state health officials reported Thursday, with 3,523 more Minnesotans testing positive for the virus.
While coronavirus fatalities typically affect those over the age of 60, seven of the people whose deaths were reported Thursday were below 60, including two in their 20s. Long-term care residents accounted for 56 of the deaths.
Since the pandemic was first detected in the state in March, 4,198 residents have died and 367,218 have tested positive, according to the Health Department.
There were 352 COVID-19 patients in intensive-care beds, a number that has dropped since Dec. 1 when COVID-19 patients filled 402 ICU beds.
Another 767 ICU beds were filled by patients who didn't have the coronavirus. All together, 92% of all ICU beds were occupied, and in the Twin Cities metro area 39 ICU beds, or about 6% of total capacity, were empty according to a state capacity dashboard.
A total of 41,499 test results were reported to the Health Department on Wednesday, a one-day increase of 5%.
Most who become seriously ill from the coronavirus have underlying health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease or heart conditions.
Many who become infected have mild symptoms, or even no symptoms, and recover on their own.
Since the pandemic began, 324,304 people are considered to be no longer infectious.