The frightening first months of fighting COVID-19 are a blur of memories and emotions for Minnesota nurse Mary C. Turner. But there's a moment that still stands out.
Turner has cared for the sickest patients at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale since the pandemic's beginning. Roughly four weeks in, she realized that a dramatic shift had occurred in her 13-bed COVID unit. The first patients were generally white and often had been infected while traveling. As the virus began to spread in the state, Turner's patients more often were Black, Hispanic or Asian. The night of her epiphany, three-quarters of her severely ill patients were people of color.
That moment of clarity has informed Turner's work as a member of the White House's Health Equity Task Force. With the nation now facing the monumental challenge of vaccinating virtually the entire adult population, this passionate caregiver doesn't want anyone left behind. "We need to vaccinate the people who did all the dying," said Turner, who is also the Minnesota Nurses Association president.
With new and more dangerous COVID variants emerging, the nation is in a race to vaccinate faster than the new strains can spread. Speed is critical, but it cannot be the only priority. Smart strategies are also needed to ensure that communities that have disproportionately borne COVID's toll have easy, swift access to the new vaccines. Doing so is the logical, ethical extension of the early strategy to vaccinate high-risk elderly first.
The Biden administration and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz have commendably communicated immunization equity's importance. This week, the White House COVID-19 Response Team drew attention again to the issue. "Among nearly all … ethnic and racial minority groups, the COVID-19-related deaths were more than double the death rate of non-Hispanic white persons," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is in everyone's best interest to ensure equity in vaccine distribution. The faster we're all vaccinated, the faster the pandemic ends. The difficulty is in reaching communities that may not have a regular medical provider or have other barriers, such as language or transportation. These challenges are especially acute in Minnesota, which is leaning on the state's big health care systems to vaccinate. The state is also home to sizable recent immigrant communities and has a diverse workforce in food processing.
Early efforts have yielded some positive early results. Across all racial and ethnic groups, the percentage of those age 65 and up who have been vaccinated is generally equal to the percentage each comprises of Minnesota's population in that age group. The data is less encouraging when all ages are included. For example, Blacks/African Americans comprise 3.7% of the state's vaccinated population, but are 6% of all Minnesotans. In contrast, white Minnesotans comprise 89.3% of the vaccinated population, but are only 81.6% overall of the entire population.
Minnesota's world-class medical researchers have developed a valuable tool — the ability to map by ZIP code where vaccinations are happening and where they're lagging. The Minnesota team behind it recently briefed Turner's White House equity team. The effort is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
The work collected will soon provide an answer to an important question: whether Walz's recent decision to open up vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and up will widen vaccine inequities. If so, remedies will be needed.
In interviews with an editorial writer this week, Walz's office and state health officials stressed the priority that has been put on vaccination equity and noted coming efforts, such as converting six Metro Transit buses into mobile vaccination clinics and deploying them around the state.
Vaccine equity is clearly a work in progress, but heavy lifting lies ahead.
Coming up: In Sunday's second installment of the occasional series "Our Best Shot," the Star Tribune Editorial Board looks at remedies for vaccine hesitancy in Minnesota's communities of color.