This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
A mass vaccination drive aimed at the Hmong, Karen and broader Southeast Asian communities will begin this weekend in St. Paul.
The organizers of the drive, which will take place at Hmong Village Shopping Center on St. Paul’s East Side, plan for weekly events as long as the need exists for vaccines to combat COVID-19. David Thao, who chairs the Hmong Medical Association and has spearheaded the effort, referred to the drive as “the first Hmong COVID-19 vaccine clinic.”
“Our goal is to vaccinate the entire Hmong community and to provide a place where they can have easy access and feel comfortable being seen and treated by Hmong physicians and Hmong medical workers,” Thao, who is also a plastic surgeon in private practice, told Sahan Journal.
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Vaccines for the drive are coming through Phalen Family Pharmacy, which is also located on St. Paul’s east side and serves a large Hmong and Karen population. The vaccines became available after Phalen Family Pharmacy applied with the state to receive doses. Minnesota started allowing pharmacies access to the vaccine on the week of Feb. 8.
The pharmacy has held smaller drives in recent weeks, usually vaccinating a few dozen people at a time. So far, the pharmacy has vaccinated about 280 people since vaccines became available. But they’re planning on vaccinating 200 more people, all aged 65 and older, this coming Saturday.
The pharmacy itself doesn’t have enough staff to administer that many vaccines, said Phalen Family Pharmacy co-owner May Xia Lo. So Lo is seeking about 20 volunteers to help with the weekend event.
That’s where Hmong Medical Association comes in. Thao and others affiliated with the association, which exists to give opportunities to aspiring Hmong doctors and medical professionals, will be on hand Saturday to help.
All 200 spots for this coming Saturday are filled. But Phalen Family Pharmacy is planning to administer 200 more doses a week later, on March 13. While some people in the community are hesitant to be vaccinated, many more are desperate to receive it, Lo said.
“People just want to get their lives back to normal,” she said. “There have just been too many people in the community who passed away last year.”
A community alternative to Walgreens and Walmart
Hmong Medical Association has been spreading awareness about the available vaccines through its social media and YouTube pages. Other organizations, like Hmong American Partnership, have been helping with messaging as well. Mai Moua, Hmong American Partnership’s chief operating officer, said organizations like Phalen Family Pharmacy are effective at reaching the community.
“These are smaller, community-based pharmacies instead of like your big Walgreens and Walmarts.” Moua said.
Most of the vaccines have been going to bigger organizations like these, along with big health care systems and big hospitals, Thao said. These aren’t the best places to reach the Hmong community, he said, especially Hmong elders who may not be completely proficient in English.
Though close to 1 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to date, vaccines are still limited and hard to access for most people. This has prompted the proliferation of so-called “vaccine hunters” — people who search to share information about available doses in online groups.
“These community members who are 65 to 75 years old, they don’t have that luxury,” Thao said. “The chances of them getting it that way is going to be slim.”
Besides using social media, organizers of the vaccine drive are working with community media, churches, and leadership groups like the Hmong 18 Council to find elders eligible for the vaccine. People interested in receiving the vaccine at a future Hmong vaccine drive can call Phalen Family Pharmacy at 651-209-9000 to ask for appointments.