Mistrust of government is significant roadblock to Black American vaccination efforts

Getty Images

The rollout of the first approved COVID-19 vaccine this week is raising questions of when the game-changing inoculations will be ready for everyday Americans.

But for communities of color, especially Black communities, that carry a deep-seated mistrust of the government, the question is if they will take the vaccine at all.

The mistrust isn’t surprising. 

From the early to mid-20th century, tens of thousands of nonwhite women were sterilized by the government. 

For four decades, the government ran what is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the deep South exclusively on Black men. Researchers never received informed consent from the participants, nor offered them treatment for the disease even after penicillin became the main form of treatment for syphilis. The experiment wasn’t stopped until 1972.

In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore removed tissue samples without consent from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who was being treated for cervical cancer. Part of the tissue sample became the first immortalized human cell line and is still widely used in cancer research today.

All of these things happened within the past 100 years and have not been easily forgotten.

“The conversation has gotten reduced [to] Black folks are not trusting the vaccine. No, Black folks don’t trust white folks … we don’t trust that white people would not would not put our lives at danger,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Thursday during a press call about the Senate runoff races in Georgia.

The impasse is problematic as it is well-documented that the pandemic has hit people of color the hardest.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people in the U.S. are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.8 times more likely to die than white people. Native American and Latino people are hospitalized at about four times the rate of white people because of COVID-19 and are over 2.5 times more likely to die.

Because of this, organizations like the NAACP are trying to actively engage and educate Black communities about the virus and the vaccines.

The nation’s oldest civil rights organization held a town hall meeting last week that featured a handful of high-level Black figures, including Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician who was named co-chair of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus advisory board, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) senior researcher Kizzmekia Corbett, who is on the front lines of vaccine development.

It changed the mind of 71-year-old Yvonne Robinson Horton of Bolton, Miss.

“I was about 70 percent sure that I was not going to take it,” Horton, a retired teacher who taught for 30 years in the Magnolia State, told The Hill on Friday. “I know about Tuskegee. I know about those women they sterilized. … I’ve read about Henrietta Lacks.”

“I’m from Bolton, Miss., we have a strong mistrust of government, to say the least, like many Black people do. … We were taught that,” she said.

What changed her mind, Horton said, were the words of Corbett, who has been lauded by Anthony Fauci, the country’s top virologist, in recent weeks for her leading role in the creation of Moderna’s vaccine, which was endorsed by a federal panel of outside experts on Thursday.

“She was so compassionate about it that I began to listen to what she and other people said,” Horton explained. “I’m trying to take all that information in and process it, but I really think now that I’m leaning more toward taking it than not.”

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, who Horton knows personally, told The Hill that she texted him about her change of heart. Johnson emphasized the importance of Black voices presenting the information about the vaccines to Black communities.

“The messenger is as important as the message,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be working really hard to build a bench of strong messengers. … It cannot be the same messenger for all communities within the African American population because we’re not a monolith, but … people tend to hear individuals they can more readily identify with.”

Some of the federal government’s health agencies seem to understand this.

In September, NIH created the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities to address misinformation about the virus while finding trusted community partners and leaders to educate their communities on accurate information about the pandemic.

Lisa Cooper, co-chair of the CEAL steering committee and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, echoed Johnson, saying that it was crucial to find the best strategy to effectively communicate with different communities throughout the country.

“There is a needs assessment component of it, understanding what people’s fears, concerns [and] questions are and then the communication campaign piece, which is basically developing different messaging for different audiences and testing them out and seeing which ones seem to be … most effective,” Cooper said.

Part of the committee’s work has centered around informing Black communities how the vaccine process is different than the stinging past experiences. For example, CEAL encouraged Black people to participate in the clinical trials of the vaccines, something that Corbett also pushed for.

“It builds credibility,” the Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, another co-chair of the steering committee, told The Hill. “It says we’ve been not only at the development … we’re the scientists, we’re the doctors, we are all of the things that are needed. This is a very different situation.”

Curry, who leads the congregation at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., added that the outreach has slowly had a positive impact.

“In the beginning … probably 90 percent of the folks I talked to said, ‘absolutely not [to getting the vaccine].’ Now that number is probably down around 50 percent.” Curry’s estimation checks out with a recent study by the Pew Research Center, in which 42 percent of the Black adults surveyed said they would get the vaccine.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services — which encapsulates NIH — told The Hill earlier in the week that it would soon roll out a public service campaign regarding the vaccines that would feature “tailored messaging to groups who are disproportionately affected and areas of the country with the highest infection rates.”

Cooper and Curry both mentioned that community messengers such as faith leaders could play a key role in getting increased buy in. On a more macro level, Cooper said that it was also important to highlight Black people like Corbett who has been on the front lines working to combat the pandemic as well as figures who are nationally recognized.

“I think sports figures are going to be really important; I think artists are going to be important; I think anyone who’s a public figure who is well regarded by a lot of people has an important role to play,” Cooper said.

The role entities such as celebrities, athletes and professional sports leagues will play is still unclear though the NBA, which has been front and center on racial justice issues this year, hinted Friday at involvement of some kind.

In a statement, NBA spokesman Mike Bass told The Hill: “As we have recently and historically, the NBA will be working in partnership with players and others in the NBA family to support important public health and safety communications, including through coordination with public health officials.”

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Joe Biden Marcella Nunez-Smith vaccine distribution

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video