George Floyd Square COVID-19 vaccine drives target misinformation, mistrust

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Even though the city of Minneapolis removed barricades from the protest zone at 38th and Chicago, George Floyd Square has remained a gathering place that attracts crowds of the curious on weekends.

The Rev. Curtis Farrar of Worldwide Outreach for Christ, the church opposite the spot where George Floyd was murdered last summer, wants the corner to be a nexus of community health as well. He has partnered with another local organization, the Cultural Wellness Center, to dispense free COVID-19 shots there in hopes of raising immunization rates in the Black community.

Farrar said he aims to host a midday vaccine drive every Saturday in the church's parking lot, weather permitting. The shots are administered by M Health Fairview's Minnesota Immunization Networking Initiative. Those who sign up receive a $50 gift card for each dose of the two-part immunization.

"I had some skepticism at first. I thought about all the experiments they've had on Black men specifically. Tuskegee came to mind," Farrar said, referring to the notorious 1932 syphilis study conducted on Black men in Alabama by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I kind of lingered until I had more information, until I could be confident it was going to really help us and the community, and I wanted my congregation to know that my wife and I have gotten our shots … and it's all good," he said.

The community around George Floyd Square has a vaccination rate of less than 40%, said Roberta Barnes, director of the Cultural Wellness Center's Backyard Community Health Hub.

Health outreach workers have been door-knocking, trying to correct the misinformation many people have about vaccines, including falsehoods that they have the power to change DNA, contain microchips or cause infertility.

"Especially African American people, because of the abuses that have happened in our community, many of them believe that they are being targeted, and they are taking no part of it," Barnes said. "When you've had systems that are supposed to care about you misuse you and abuse you, it's not easy to trust."

One woman who brought her 14-year-old daughter to get the Pfizer vaccine Saturday said they had gotten vaccinated "begrudgingly" in order to travel out of the country to visit family. She requested anonymity because she works in higher education, where immunization is required, even though she does not agree with vaccine mandates.

"I feel I don't have control over my body," she said. "I feel like this should be a personal choice. I don't feel like it should be punitive, and it really is."

The woman said she felt much more comfortable wearing a mask, which she believes has also prevented her from getting sick from the flu and other illnesses since she began masking regularly.

"Any gain we can make is a good thing," said Ricky Livingston, African American COVID-19 community coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Vaccination rates had been steadily dropping off in the months since the first vaccines came out because highly motivated people got them right away, he said. But now, with schools open and some workplaces returning to in-person, more people who were reluctant to get vaccinated are doing it because of mandates.

"A lot of people are coming out that aren't this gung-ho about it, but they need it for various reasons. It's a sad state, but it's where we are right now," Livingston said. "From the beginning, there's been disbelief, hoaxes and conspiracies, and it has just grown and grown.

"A lot of people are of the same ilk, of 'If I hear something bad about something, I'm just going to avoid it, period,'" he said. "But this is something you really can't do that with."

Susan Du • 612-673-4028

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