ST. PAUL — COVID-19 vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents of Minnesota are improving, according to the state Department of Health, even as the overall pace of vaccinations slows.

The state has yet to achieve the feat of partially vaccinating 70% of residents older than 16, recent data show. But since May, Health Department Vaccine Equity Director Dr. Nathan Chomilo said, "the communities that have had, week over week, the largest increases in coverage gains have been our Black and Hispanic Minnesota communities."

Improving vaccine access for Minnesota communities of color, as well as for residents with disabilities and poorer neighborhoods, is particularly important given the disproportionate toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on them. Non-white Minnesotans account for more instances of COVID-19 hospitalizations recorded in the state and more deaths despite making up only a portion of the overall state population.

The disparate effects of COVID-19 reflect long-standing barriers to health care that communities of color face, including transportation and language differences. That's why Minnesota's approach to closing the vaccine gap has focused on bringing doses to communities that need them rather than require members of those communities to travel for their shots.

On May 1, days after plans to allocate 40% of vaccine doses from the federal government to high-risk communities in Minnesota were announced, just 38% of Black residents and 41.5% of Hispanic residents had at least one shot, according to health department data. State health officials planned to distribute the doses in part using what's known as the Social Vulnerability Index, which health and disaster response agencies use to gauge the level of support a community will need in the event of an emergency.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

By July 3, the most recent date for which data were available, 52.7% of Black residents and 57% of Hispanic residents had at least one shot. In a recent interview, Chomilo called that a "notable decrease in the gap between those communities and our statewide coverage."

Minnesota's American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander communities have made similar strides but reported higher rates of vaccination than did their Black and Hispanic neighbors earlier in the pandemic.

Chomilo said vaccination events at churches, schools, barbershops and other easily accessible venues have helped to close the vaccine gap somewhat. Joint outreach efforts between the state health department and managed care organizations in Minnesota, he said, have also notified thousands of Medicaid and MinnesotaCare enrollees about vaccine availability and connected them to the necessary transportation and interpretive services.

M Health Fairview has taken a similarly targeted approach to COVID-19 vaccinations in the Twin Cities area through its Minnesota Immunization Networking Initiative, or MINI. The program, founded in 2006, focused previously on providing free vaccinations for influenza and other commonplace diseases at places of worship, schools, community centers and food pantries.

MINI clinics offer walk-ins so that even passersby with spare time can take their COVID-19 shots, according to Dr. Ana Núñez, vice dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at University of Minnesota Medical School. The initiative has administered 25,366 COVID vaccine shots to date, primarily to residents identifying as people of color and many of whom are uninsured.

"There's a thing in primary care where we say, 'we want to make the healthy choice be the easy choice,'" Núñez said in an interview.

Targeted vaccination efforts will continue alongside those of private health care providers and pharmacies as the mass-vaccination clinics held earlier in the pandemic phase out. Those clinics, part of the state's "Community Vaccination Program" will close in early August, Gov. Tim Walz announced last week, with the exception of one at the Mall of America in Bloomington.

According to Núñez, vaccine equity must be continually improved in part to prevent more harmful COVID-19 variants from developing.

"Do we still have work to do? You bet," she said.