Story at a glance
- Frontline health workers have begun to receive doses of the coronavirus vaccine this week, including critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay.
- Lindsay made history as the first American to receive the vaccine and used her platform to urge fellow Black women to trust science.
- Distrust in the medical community — a result of historical traumas — is highest in Black Americans and other BIPOC communities.
Critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay made history on Monday when she became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. It was a pivotal moment for all Americans in the fight against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, especially at a time when new case numbers have been rising as we head into the holiday season.
Lindsay told reporters shortly after receiving her dose that it was important for her as a Black woman to get the vaccine and that she wanted to send a message to marginalized groups about trusting science. It’s been a tricky topic to broach, as the country faces a checkered history of using and abusing people of color for medical advancement and deceiving poor Black men, to their detriment, about medical care.
“Unfortunately, due to history, my population — minorities, people that look like me — are hesitant to take vaccines,” she said.
It’s defeating this lingering skepticism about the vaccine, even among some of her own staff, that Lindsay said was her goal on Monday: “Not to be the first one to take the vaccine, but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”
Lindsay said that she herself had faced personal loss as a result of COVID-19 this year, losing both an aunt and uncle to the virus. This is not an uncommon occurrence for people of color around the country, as Black, Latinx and Indigenous peoples are statistically nearly three times more likely to die of the coronavirus as compared to white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite these grim numbers, vaccine willingness among communities of color remains relatively low, according to an early December report from the Pew Research Center, which found that only 42 percent of Black Americans were inclined to take a vaccine compared to 63 percent of Hispanic Americans and 61 percent of white Americans. These numbers all remain below the 70- to 90-percent threshold scientists say need to be vaccinated before people are able to finally let their guards down.
New hope for widespread vaccination has been found through another more recent poll, though, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation just this Tuesday. It found that recently the amount of Americans who are willing to participate in taking the vaccine is quickly rising, and that now 71 percent of Americans are reportedly willing to take a free and safe COVID-19 vaccine — an increase of 8 percent from three months ago.
Even more encouraging are their findings that the most dramatic increases are among Black adults, with 62 percent of those polled in December saying they would be willing to take a free and safe vaccine, compared to 50 percent three months ago.
A dark history
The mere sight of Lindsay being injected won’t erase the damage that has inspired fears and doubt from Black American communities, though, and experts say it is important to acknowledge the reasons why their skepticism exists.
A history of medical abuses and unethical scientific experimentation on Black people in the United States continues to cast this shadow of doubt, including the infamous Tuskegee experiment, which ran from 1932 until 1972. During this time the U.S. Public Health Service provided free “health care” to 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis, wrongly informing them they were being treated for “bad blood.” Their true intent was to record how syphilis progressed, and when researchers withheld treatment, many of the men in the study died or suffered other effects of late-stage infection.
In North Carolina, acknowledgements have finally been made about its role in abusive medical practices. The state agreed to compensate people who underwent forced sterilizations as a result of a 40-year state-sponsored eugenics program. During this time, nearly 7,600 people were sterilized before it finally came to an end in the 1970s. A majority of those sterilized were Black.
“I know people who have shown [the video of Lindsay] to their children. It is tremendously important,” Melissa Creary, assistant professor of health management and policy at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, told The Lily. “But, I think the histories of oppression are long. The memories of oppression linger. It’s going to take more than just this instance for us to have an immediate reaction that isn’t skeptical.”
According to the Kaiser study from earlier this month, many people of color are concerned the vaccine developers haven't taken into account the needs of their ethnic group, but their concerns may have been partially eased by a public message made recently by Anthony Fauci. Fauci acknowledged Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman who was one of the lead scientists who helped develop the vaccine, and expressed hopes that it would convince Black Americans to trust the process.
"So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you're going to be taking was developed by an African American woman," Fauci said at a National Urban League event earlier this month. "And that is just a fact."
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