Nearly one year after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, 75-year-old Youa Som waited in line at M Health Fairview Clinic – Bethesda for a chance to increase her odds against the disease with a vaccine.
“This disease is very serious,” Som said through an interpreter. “This shot will protect me and will help me even if I get sick.”
Som, who came to the clinic with her sister and her niece, was one of 230 people who received the first dose of their COVID-19 vaccine during a six-hour vaccination event on Saturday, Feb. 20. For decades, the clinic has served immigrants and refugees in Frogtown, one of St. Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods. On Saturday, nearly half of the patients who got vaccinated were non-English speaking. Many were Hmong or Karen, a reflection of the community around the clinic.
“This event is huge,” said Jennifer Ellison, who has worked as the clinic’s manager for nearly a decade. “Many of our patients are scared. They’ve seen illness. They’ve seen financial challenges over the past year as the result of the pandemic. And they know their communities are at a higher risk of dying.”
Statewide data shows that minority and underserved communities in Minnesota have experienced greater rates of illness, hospitalization, and death since the pandemic began. National data suggests Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and disabled people have had less access to vaccines as they are distributed nationwide.
Nao Xiong Kue, 87, knows the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic all too well. “I’ve been avoiding people and staying at home, pretty much,” he said after getting vaccinated on Saturday. “It’s best not to go out.”
The state is still in the early days of vaccination, and demand far exceeds available supply. But M Health Fairview is taking significant steps now to break down potential barriers for underserved patients – including language, transportation and technology – to ensure that they get vaccinated as soon as they become eligible.
“We know confidence, complacency, and convenience all impact the decision to get vaccinated,” said Kristi Van Riper, an operations strategy manager within the M Health Fairview system.
Public health experts like Van Riper call these factors the “3Cs.” People may avoid getting a vaccine if they don’t trust the healthcare workers providing them, if they believe their risks of getting sick or dying from a disease are low, or if it’s not easy to access the vaccines.
Events like the one at M Health Fairview Clinic – Bethesda are an important step because they allow patients to get vaccinated at a familiar location, by clinic staff they know and trust.
The clinic has earned that trust during its long history serving Frogtown. It first opened as a teaching clinic for new physicians trained at the University of Minnesota and other schools across the country. Over the years, the neighborhood changed and so has the clinic, adding new services to support the growing number of refugees and immigrants living in the neighborhood. Now, special programs offer health screenings for refugees, trauma support in partnership with The Center for Victims of Torture, on-site chemical dependency treatment so patients with addictions don’t have to seek care elsewhere, and legal aid in partnership with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. Programs are multilingual for patients who speak Karen, Hmong, Somali, Burmese, Vietnamese, Spanish and more.
The clinic’s teaching model means some former medical residents are now part of the clinic’s regular staff, and many have years-long relationships with their patients.
“Our patients are like family,” Ellison said. “Many of us have worked here for years. We have some who have worked here most of their career. That longevity means we know these patients and their challenges.”
It’s these close ties that Ellison reflects on when she thinks of the impact the first COVID-19 vaccine event – and others as vaccine supply increases – will have on her patients.
“It really means a lot to see our patients start to receive the vaccine,” she said. “They have been through a lot, and now we’re giving them hope.”
“I don’t know what the future is going to bring,” said Wilson Yang shortly after receiving his first dose. “Hopefully the vaccine will lower my risk of getting COVID-19. I’m very grateful. I’m glad I got the shot.”
“It’s been a long year, but now we get to see our patients’ excitement,” said Family Medicine Physician Cherilyn Wicks, MD. Wicks, who serves as the clinic’s medical director, gave vaccines to community members on Saturday. “The shot only takes a few seconds and most people don’t feel a thing. I heard many patients say, ‘That’s it?’ They’ve waited so long, and their hope comes in a few seconds.”