Feb 9, 2021 - News

Doctors call on Minnesota to end "color-blind" COVID vaccinations

Illustration of an upright vaccine vial, and a paper tear revealing another, broken vial.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Hundreds of doctors and health providers are urging top state officials to add "a heavy dose of racial and health equity" to Minnesota's vaccine rollout to better prioritize communities of color.

The big picture: Data from across the country shows people of color are being vaccinated at lower rates than white people, despite being disproportionately hit by COVID-19 and its devastating effects.

  • MDH has yet to even release a racial breakdown for vaccinations. Officials have said reporting gaps make such data difficult to gather.

What they're saying: "Efficiency and speed cannot stand as excuses to push equity aside," the letter from the Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity coalition reads.

  • "Our overemphasis on urgency has contributed to colorblind vaccination strategies which reinforce rather than combat the disparate harms of structural racism evident throughout this pandemic."
  • Signees include leaders of several statewide medical associations and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter

The ask: The coalition wants MDH to immediately release a racial breakdown of vaccinations and revise its guidance to focus on those at highest risk, including people of color, individuals working in meat packing plants and those experiencing homelessness.

  • They also urged the state to repeal its directive for providers to use 90% of available doses within three days and replace the threshold "with a measure that captures, and ideally incentivizes, equitable distribution."
  • Nathan Chomilo, a Brooklyn Center pediatrician who serves on the state's Vaccine Allocation Advisory Group, told Axios he wants to see a bigger emphasis on working with community groups. Prioritizing seniors already enrolled in both Medicaid and Medicare could also help.

What's happening: The current tranche of vaccine-eligible Minnesotans includes all seniors 65 and older, health care workers, long-term care residents and employees, teachers and child care workers.

  • But supply issues mean hundreds of thousands of people are in line for tens of thousands of shots per week.
  • While community clinics focused on communities of color are part of the rollout, most vaccines are being allocated by health providers and employers, who are working with existing patients or workers, or a lottery-style system.
  • Critics say a lack of "clear, ethical and equitable guidance" on who to prioritize within the eligible groups, plus communication and technology barriers, mean those most vulnerable aren't getting enough access.

The other side: A spokesman for Gov. Tim Walz said the administration's vaccine rollout is focused on "maximizing benefits and minimizing harms, promoting justice, mitigating health inequities, and promoting transparency."

  • "The State of Minnesota is working hard to make sure BIPOC and underserved communities have equitable access to the vaccine," he added, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
  • MDH did not comment on the letter, but pointed to a list of ongoing outreach efforts.
  • State officials have previously said that while racial equity is a priority, the current guidelines are based on federal recommendations.

The problem: Updating the guidelines could mean telling droves of Minnesotans who think they're eligible for a shot now, including many seniors, that they actually have to wait.

  • And, however you slice it, Minnesota doesn't have enough supply to meet demand.

The bottom line: Advocates say an approach more focused on health and racial equity will have the biggest impact on public health.

  • "We need to take a step back and say we’re in a different place than we were three weeks ago when we made this change," Chomilo said of opening the gates to all seniors.

This story first appeared in the Axios Twin Cities newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to show that Chomilo works in Brooklyn Center, not Brooklyn Park.


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