COVID vaccinations take center stage in long-standing program to address health care inequities

A woman points at a card.
Dai Vu, Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 community coordination supervisor, explains the vaccine tracking card in Vietnamese to a man inside of St. Columba Catholic Church in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the sanctuary where mass is usually held at St. Columba Catholic Church in St. Paul, a half-dozen health care workers sat at tables Friday, giving out shots of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Doi Nguyen, a 65-year-old chiropractor from St. Paul, checked in at a table in the vestibule of the church.

He spoke with the worker in Vietnamese as she double-checked his information and gave him information about the vaccine. He got a dose of the Pfizer vaccine in his left arm from M Health Fairview nurse Treva Bjerke.

“With the Pfizer vaccine, your arm will be sore for a couple days, might feel like you have the flu. So maybe a headache, chills,” Bjerke told Nguyen after giving him the shot. Translators were available for patients who needed them.

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While COVID-19 vaccines are new territory for M Health Fairview, working in communities that have often not had equal access to health care is not. For the last 15 years, M Health Fairview’s Minnesota Immunization Networking Initiative has been partnering with more than 100 community groups to put on vaccine and health care clinics across the metro area.

A man gets a shot in his upper arm.
Doi Nguyen recieves his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Treva Bjerke inside of St. Columba Catholic Church in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“Our work has always been focused on being involved in community with community partners to improve health and well-being,” said Ingrid Johansen, manager for clinical care and outreach for M Health Fairview. “We have led a mobile immunization program that has always had the mission of working with community partners to reduce barriers to seasonal influenza vaccination for predominantly communities of color and uninsured or underinsured communities. And so this was just a natural launching point for our work with COVID.”

Friday’s event, in partnership with Portico Healthnet, was one more than 60 COVID-19 vaccination events the program has scheduled from early January through March.

Nguyen, the chiropractor who got his shot Friday, said he saw an ad at the church for the clinic. He put his name in and they called.

“I think I appreciate whatever they do for the minority community,” he said. “It's a good thing, it makes people happy. And it's very good preventive care.”

People sit facing the front of a church.
People wait 15 minutes while being monitored after receiving a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Columba Catholic Church in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Johansen said they’re doing mobile clinics like the one at St. Columba six days a week. Outside of their long-established partnerships, Johansen said it’s important to give people information in their preferred language, to share that information through trusted sources and to hold the events in accessible and known community spaces.

“The outreach was done in Vietnamese, again, through these trusted messengers, and people were telling me that ... they've been trying to get into a clinic (but) they couldn't figure it out. They tried and tried. And then they heard about it through their church or through the temple and had an appointment like that,” she said.

A needle is stuck into a vial.
Nurse Treva Bjerke draws a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe before administering it to a patient.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That language aspect was important Friday. Nguyen said he sees in his own chiropractic practice how much speaking a person’s language not only helps people understand the process, but also puts them at ease.

“I am Vietnamese, so I speak Vietnamese, I speak English. But I have also worked for the Hmong community for a long time. So I speak Hmong. So that makes it somehow easier for me to communicate with people,” he said.

Johansen gave a presentation to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biden administration in late February to share information on reaching underserved racial, ethnic and economic groups.

“So it was an opportunity to share this, with hopes that we could give some real tactical advice on how other systems and organizations and community orgs could come together with the goal of vaccine equity right now — like, urgently,” she said.

A man sits facing the front of a church.
A man sits in a pew for the 15-minute monitoring period after receiving a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine inside of St. Columba Catholic Church in St. Paul. The church's membership is largely Vietnamese, and the vaccine event targeted elders in the community.
Evan Frost | MPR News

These efforts will be key for the state as it tries to improve equity in vaccine distribution throughout the rollout. Last week, the state began releasing data which showed some disparities in vaccine equity, especially in those under 65.

Djung Pham with Portico Healthnet was pleased with Friday’s turnout.

“I can see that the majority of people, they’re really, really excited about this,” she said. “That's why we got so crowded.”

Pham said they had 260 people sign up, more than the 240 vaccine doses available, so she hopes they’ll be able to do another clinic soon.

Correction (March 8, 2021): Ingrid Johansen’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.