Health Care

Black leaders promote vaccine to help overcome community skepticism


Black elected officials and political leaders are making a concerted push to Black members of their communities to accept the coronavirus vaccines and overcome a deep-rooted skepticism that is the result of historical mistreatment of Black Americans by the medical industry.

A series of prominent Black leaders have publicized the shots they have received in hopes of boosting vaccine acceptance in communities that have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Given the storage time for vaccines and the fact that they can be wasted, you really need to make sure you have folks willing to take the vaccine, folks who are excited to take the vaccine,” Quinton Lucas, the Democratic mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said in an interview with The Hill. “You have a lot of wait-and-see approach from our Black and brown populations.”

Lucas received his vaccine shot last week. His office recorded the injection and sent the video to local television stations, which aired it on news broadcasts that evening. 

In Dallas, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a registered nurse and the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, has reached out to Black communities about the vaccine. In Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson publicized his own vaccine shot on Friday at an area hospital.

“I understand there is a lot of hesitancy in minority communities across the country when it comes to health care, but this is not an American experiment on Black people,” said Anita Jenkins, the chief executive of Howard University Hospital in Washington. “The vaccine is a worldwide cure to end a global pandemic and set us on a path back to normalcy.”

The outreach is necessary because of a legacy of medical mistreatment of Black Americans, from the Tuskegee experiments to today. Current studies show doctors are less likely to take seriously a Black patient’s complaints.

Polls show Black Americans are less likely to say they will take a vaccine — a Pew Research Center study from November found only 42 percent of Black Americans would definitely or probably take a vaccine if it were available, far below the rates of white, Hispanic or Asian Americans.

“There’s distrust among groups that have been marginalized, that have been discriminated against, that have experienced systemic racism,” said Deborah Hudson, an epidemiologist at Hampton University. “African Americans have been used as guinea pigs for many years, and we remember.”

Johnson highlighted Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) who helped develop the Moderna vaccine. At a forum hosted by the National Urban League last month, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci praised Corbett’s work as instrumental to the vaccine’s development.

“If we want to target African Americans, I think we need leaders within the community, we need ambassadors, we need change-makers, we need champions to get the vaccine,” Hudson said. “It is very helpful for African Americans to see leaders within the community accept the vaccine.”

From the beginning of the pandemic, Black communities have experienced disproportionate numbers of infections and disproportionate economic consequences. In most states, Black residents make up a higher share of cases and have a higher death rate compared to their percentage of the general population, according to data maintained by the Covid Tracking Project, a group of independent researchers. 

Black Americans are three times as likely to die from the coronavirus than white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Public health experts say the challenge in reaching Black communities can be overcome, but not without a sustained educational effort. After such a long legacy of mistreatment, health experts say that questions about safety and efficacy deserve to be addressed. 

“No one should be shamed or belittled or badgered into getting vaccination. They should have their concerns addressed so they make informed decisions,” said Rich Besser, a former CDC director who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It’s critical that we recognize that different people view different individuals as trusted voices and that trusted voices for each community are the ones carrying messages forward about vaccines and vaccine safety.”

Hudson said local governments and health experts needed to meet people where they are, adding that not everyone watches television or sits through internet webinars.

Lucas has made a point of reaching out to the Kansas City Call, the newspaper that serves the Black community.

Other messengers will prove critical to the effort to bolster acceptance, from clergy members to celebrities who enjoy trust among their communities.

“We haven’t gotten LeBron yet, but I think these are going to be key steps,” Lucas said.

Tags Anthony Fauci Black Americans Black communities coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 vaccine Eddie Bernice Johnson Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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