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As mask mandates lift, worries about vaccine disparities come to the fore

Vaccination rates in Minnesota vary widely along racial and ethnic lines.

The CDC's updated guidance - that those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 don't need to wear masks or social distance in many indoor spaces - prompted a wave of responses. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz quickly ended the statewide mask mandate that's been in effect for nearly 11 months (despite last week saying it would come either July 1, or earlier if the state's vaccination rate hits 70%, neither of which have yet happened). Cities and businesses, still able to implement their own mask-related policies, have since made their own announcements regarding mask requirement. (Bring Me The News has a running list here.)

The sudden end to the mask mandate, however, has opened the door to some questions and concerns, including the stark disparities in vaccination rates along racial lines.

"This is an urgent thing, and we all know that the socially vulnerable communities - communities of color, low-income communities - were hit harder by COVID-19 disease," said Attorney General Keith Ellison during Friday's Executive Council Meeting.

Ellison pointed out during the call that vaccination rates "vary widely from the standpoint of race in our state." According to the state's COVID-19 vaccination dashboard, 47.9% of the state's 15+ white population had received at least one vaccine.

Among the state's Black population, the vaccination rate was just 28%. And among the Hispanic population, 27.7%.

Vaccination rates by race and ethnicity, as of May 14, 2021.

Vaccination rates by race and ethnicity, as of May 14, 2021.

Gov. Walz said equity has been "centered in [the state's] process around vaccinations," noting 40% of vaccine allocations are going to communities in "high social vulnerability indexes."

"We are seeing a closing but the attorney general is exactly right, there are still gaps in that equity," Walz said. 

Part of the strategy for reaching more of these communities, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said, is to work with trusted community-based organizations that can help sponsor local, accessible vaccination sites. 

The state Health Department on Friday also announced a partnership with health plans to try to make the vaccination rates more equitable by targeting individuals on Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan described the overall strategy as moving from "large-scale events to smaller, more personalized ones," calling it "an organizing effort" at this point.

Minneapolis, however, is factoring in the disparate vaccination rates in its decision to continue on with its mask mandate. As City Council President Lisa Bender tweeted, data shows that "while 71% of white people have received one dose, that number is 28% of our Black neighbors and 35% for Latino people in Minneapolis."

There are "really some significant disparities" in terms of vaccination rates, said the city's health commissioner, Gretchen Musicant, during Friday's City Council meeting.

"In many ways, the question of how shall we proceed," she continued, "rests on a goal we have as a city to lead with the notion of equity and to protect or population equitably."

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