Volunteers and Phalen Family Pharmacy team up for COVID vaccination clinics at Hmong Village

8March 2021

Phalen Family Pharmacy is the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront that has helped make the Hmong Village Shopping Center in St. Paul a destination for many Southeast Asian immigrants — small, homey and family-run.

These days, its footprint belies its mission: Inoculating Hmong elders against a deadly virus.

The one-room pharmacy, through a pilot program approved by the Minnesota Department of Health and St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, administers a handful of doses of the Moderna vaccine daily. But pharmacist Cheng Lo has neither the staff nor time to do much more than that with his five employees if he wants to keep his 10-year-old business afloat.

“They can do maybe 10 per day, that’s it,” said Dr. David Thao, a Woodbury-based plastic surgeon and founding member of the Hmong Medical Association, which has stepped in to help.

The federal government has set a goal of supplying enough vaccine for the entire country by the end of May, but distribution remains a key question.

It’s one that Thao hopes to answer through volunteerism.

Doctor David Thao, Chairman of the Hmong Medical Association, speaks with a patient waiting in the observation area after receiving his COVID vaccine at Hmong Village Shopping Center on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. (Emma Gottschalk / Pioneer Press)

In trial-run clinics at the shopping center, the Hmong Medical Association and Hmong Health Care Professionals Coalition have managed to roughly double the numbers of Hmong elders vaccinated in one sitting, but they’re ready to do more.

On Saturdays, the doctors, nurses and medical aides will volunteer at all-day vaccination clinics aimed, for now, at healthcare workers and Hmong elders age 65 and over. Their goal is to get the Moderna vaccine into some 200 arms each weekend, and help the Hmong community fight COVID-19.

Many Hmong elders, once resistant to COVID precautions or committed to folk cures, are largely coming around, in part due to the spread of the virus in the Hmong community, Thao said. “I’d say 80 to 90 percent of patients want this,” Thao said. “There’s no arm-twisting. People ask, where can we get the shot and how can we get it faster?”

Asian rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death have trended lower than that of the white population in Minnesota. However, while Asians make up 4.8 percent of the state, they make up 8 percent of COVID-related intensive care admissions, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The virus so far has killed 115 of every 100,000 Minnesota residents and 97 of every 100,000 Asian residents. However, the state’s Asian population skews young. The Minnesota Department of Health’s age-adjusted death rate, which accounts for that fact, is 177 deaths per 100,000 Asian residents.

“A lot of patients are calling that are not 65 and over, but they have health conditions,” said Lo, the pharmacist. “They’re diabetic or have had transplants, or they’re post-stroke, and they’re begging me to look the other way. It’s not a good feeling turning these people away. The sooner these 65-year-old patients start getting vaccinated, the sooner that can happen.”

To help assuage fears around vaccination, Thao posts videos to YouTube and Facebook featuring Hmong-language interviews with elders who have just gotten their shots. While potential side-effects such as fever, chills, tiredness and headache vary, most symptoms are mild to moderate and go away quickly.

Hmong churches and the 18 Clan network have helped spread the word and steered over elders. “They’ve been very supportive,” Thao said.

A volunteer waits to check in patients receiving COVID vaccines during a short lull at the Hmong Village Shopping Center on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. (Emma Gottschalk / Pioneer Press)

The shopping center, located on Johnson Parkway, has provided a large conference room to allow for social distancing, and the association is eager to recruit more Hmong-speaking volunteers. A clinic can require 20 or 30 people to staff it. The medical association’s first large clinic is scheduled for March 6 and fully booked. Thao said seniors and healthcare workers interested in the March 13 clinic should call the pharmacy directly.

Eventually, as more vaccine becomes available and the general population is called up for shots, Thao would like to see some 300 or 400 patients at Hmong Village immunized each weekend. His prediction? If supply increases and demand holds strong, his community will be largely immunized by July.

For more information about when and where to get vaccinated, visit the state of Minnesota’s Vaccine Connector at vaccineconnector.mn.gov.

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