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Efforts ramp up to vaccinate people of color against COVID-19 in Wisconsin

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Mullen and Docter checking in Xiong

Chris Mullen, center, and Dr. Tim Docter, of the Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic, check in Mee Xiong before she gets a COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday at Bayview apartments in Downtown Madison. The BSP Free Clinic, one of 100 organizations around the state that have received state grants to boost immunization among racial and ethnic minorities, has been going to community settings to provide shots.

For Mao Lor, 65, getting a COVID-19 vaccine was painless and will make her feel safer leaving home, she said.

“There’s no hurt,” the resident of the Bayview apartments in Downtown Madison said after receiving a shot Wednesday. “I need to protect (myself) so I can go to the store.”

Ana Rios, 63, who also lives at Bayview, said she’ll keep wearing her mask even after getting her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. “We have to protect each other,” she said through interpreter Yenny Juarez.

With all Wisconsin residents 16 and older now eligible for immunization against the coronavirus, health officials, medical providers and community groups are increasing their push to make sure racial and ethnic minorities have access to the vaccine.

Statewide, 13.7% of Black residents, 16.7% of Hispanics, 21% of American Indians and 23% of Asians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 32.3% of whites.

In Dane County, 45.5% of American Indians have had at least one dose, compared to 41% for whites, 16.5% for Blacks, 22.8% for Hispanics and 26.8% for Asians. Tribes receive vaccine directly from the federal government, which has spurred more immunizations in some American Indian communities.

Bernhardt giving shot to Lor

Dr. Lou Bernhardt, a retired surgeon who volunteers with the Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic, gives a COVID-19 shot Wednesday to Mao Lor at Bayview apartments in Downtown Madison.

The disparities in vaccination come on top of inequities in how COVID-19 has impacted communities of color. Compared to whites, Hispanics have 1.7 times greater case rates, Blacks have double the hospitalization rate, and American Indians have 1.6 times greater death rates, according to the state Department of Health Services.

“This pandemic has highlighted existing health inequities in Wisconsin and across the nation,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a statement last week announcing $6.2 million in grants to 100 organizations to boost vaccinations among marginalized or underserved populations.

“As part of our work to reach an 80% vaccination rate across our state, we have to ensure those Wisconsinites that have been hit hardest by the pandemic have the opportunity to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus,” Timberlake said.

‘Where they’re at’

The Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic in Middleton, which received one of the grants, has been reaching out to homeless people and communities of color in the Madison area through a mobile vaccination clinic. On Wednesday, the group visited Bayview, where more than half of the roughly 300 residents are Hmong or Southeast Asian, with the remainder mostly Hispanic or African American.

“The patient populations who are most hesitant to the vaccine, and oftentimes the most vulnerable, will come out if it’s their space,” said Chris Mullen, vaccine coordinator for the BSP Free Clinic, which has provided about 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine and was scheduled to give 40 at Bayview.


Syringes of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine are prepared for residents of Bayview apartments Wednesday. The Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic has provided about 1,000 doses of the vaccine, including through its mobile vaccination clinic.

Many residents at Bayview aren’t native English speakers or don’t use computers, and some are unsure about getting the vaccine, said Nate Schorr, Bayview’s community programs manager. Of the 200 or so adults at Bayview, fewer than 50 were known to have received a shot as of last week, Schorr said.

“It’s been a difficult road for some of these people to access other ways of getting vaccines, whether it’s calling Walgreens or going onto MyChart,” he said. “We’re trying to meet people exactly where they’re at.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Dane County received a DHS grant to encourage people of color to get vaccinated and plans a town hall meeting to discuss immunization, said CEO Michael Johnson.

In partnership with Fitchburg Family Pharmacy and the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy, the organization scheduled vaccine clinics this Saturday and the next two Saturdays at club sites in Sun Prairie, Madison and Fitchburg.

“People of color are very cautious when it comes to the health care system,” and many are concerned about side effects from the vaccine, Johnson said.

Take the shot

He said he developed chills and a headache after receiving his Johnson & Johnson shot last week but a few days later felt fine.

“I’m glad I got it,” he said. “I’d rather people take this risk, to get vaccinated, than to come down with COVID.”

Front-line workers

The Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, which got a DHS grant, worked with UW Health to hold a vaccine clinic Monday for nearly 200 workers, including those from local restaurants and markets. The Fitchburg-based organization plans statewide outreach, including in rural areas, said CEO Jessica Cavazos.

Bernhardt giving shot to Thao

Dr. Lou Bernhardt gives a COVID-19 shot to Chue Thao Wednesday at the Bayview apartments in Downtown Madison, where more than half of residents are Hmong or Southeast Asian. Statewide and in Dane County, vaccination rates are lower for Asians than for whites.

In many cases, Latinos “were the front-line workers that kept our economy going (during the pandemic),” Cavazos said. “In order for us to reopen the economy, to go through that positive pivoting process, we’re going to need everyone involved (in vaccination).”

UW Health has had a few “vaccine racial equity days” at its Arboretum Clinic on South Park Street and plans to continue holding at least one a week, said Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, chief diversity officer. Groups representing communities of color invite people to come, and interpreters and printed materials in several languages are available, she said.

“There’s a huge need to create this kind of access,” she said. “The end game is for everybody to be at that community immunity rate (of vaccination). We want every community to be at 60-80%.”

For many Hmong elders, who have language and digital barriers to obtaining vaccinations, another factor is mistrust of the government and of some doctors because of their experiences while living in Laos, said Peng Her, CEO of the Hmong Institute in Madison, which also received a DHS grant.

“We’re helping to educate them so they can make a sound, educated decision on whether to get a shot or not,” Her said.

Testimony offered

The BSP Free Clinic came to the Hmong Institute Tuesday to provide second doses of Moderna vaccine to 49 people who received their initial shots last month. Access Community Health Centers inoculated 87 people through the institute two weeks ago, and another 65 people are on a waiting list, Her said.

Testimony from community leaders who have been vaccinated is often the best way to convince people to roll up their sleeves, Her said.

Her is a case in point. His arm was a bit sore after his first dose and a little more sore after his second dose in February, when he also experienced some fatigue. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from doing an activity people getting shots now might not have to do.

“I shoveled snow the next day,” he said.


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