PORTLAND, Maine – The COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Maine Access Immigrant Network was quiet Friday afternoon as two nurses prepared to give a young boy his first Pfizer dose. His mother waited for a booster.
The organization’s lobby, decorated with multinational flags, has signs in different languages requesting visitors to wear masks. Someone had just come back from a run for samosas, Indian pastries that are a regular fixture on Fridays at the group’s Portland office. About a dozen people were scheduled to get either initial or booster doses that day.
That is a smaller amount than what the clinic saw a year ago, when it gave 200 or more shots per day. But even a few people means progress in the communities that faced some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in COVID-19 infections when the pandemic began, said Simane Ibrahaim, a community health worker at the organization.
“It has not been easy,” Ibrahaim said. “I wish I could say to you that it was a one-day thing, but that would be a lie.”
Racial minorities contracted the virus at disproportionate rates early in the pandemic. Nearly 89 percent of Black people in Maine now report being fully vaccinated, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. Health experts say it took aggressive outreach and the patience to establish trust in their communities to overcome hesitancy.
Other racial groups have also reported high vaccination numbers. Asian people have the second-highest vaccination rates with 87 percent, and American Indian or Alaska Natives were at 78.5 percent. People who self-reported as white were far behind at 58 percent, but state officials say many more are likely to be vaccinated because reporting race is not required and many people do not report it.
Maine is 94 percent while, and variants of the coronavirus have continued to emerge and rapidly spread as only 66 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times vaccination tracker. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found in early April that white people accounted for two-thirds of the unvaccinated population in the U.S.
While breakthrough cases, or instances where fully vaccinated and boosted people still contract the virus, have become more common, those cases tend to be more mild and unvaccinated people are at greater risk of serious illness.
Maine’s success in vaccinating people of color is likely a product of one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, said Ian Yaffe, the director of the Maine CDC’s Office of Population Health Equity who was hired last summer. The state trails only Vermont and Rhode Island with 80 percent of people fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times tracker.
But he also said the state has allowed community partners to take the lead in outreach and education with the demographics they work with. That allowed the state to figure out how to address community-wide problems, like being able to access the vaccine locally and information about it in their native language.
Many who are still not vaccinated are likely hesitant for religious or political reasons, and it will take more individual conversations to reach them, Yaffe said. The Maine CDC’s work is not over on the issue as the state works on projects to improve its data gathering and studying its health inequities to fix the challenges it faces serving people of color going forward.
“The discussions we are having are only just the beginning,” he said.
Hibo Omer, the interim executive director of the New Mainers Public Health Initiative, said she was relieved to hear numbers had improved. Her group works primarily with the Somali community in Lewiston and has partnered with local religious groups for months to hold pop-up clinics. Their clinics were typically three weeks apart, but Omer’s group partners with others locally to ensure someone who is interested always has a chance to get vaccinated.
It was a challenge to overcome a mistrust of the government and vaccine misinformation, and Hibo said there are still those who need to be convinced. But she believed having a trusted group of health experts who could show the benefits of being vaccinated and the willingness to call a person several times to get them scheduled has moved the needle in her community.
Hesitant people can be won over that way too, she said.
“The battles and the boot work did not go to waste,” Omer said.