The COVID-19 vaccine will reach more Americans as the eligibility expands. But just because people can get it doesn’t mean they will.
Specifically, Black Americans, who have historically been discriminated against in medicine and who have had unequal access to medical care, are less likely to get the vaccine, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a poll conducted in December by the center, only 42% of Black Americans said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 63% Hispanic and 61% white Americans.
Similar sentiments have been echoed within Cortland County.
Sean Smith, a Black man, hesitates to get the vaccine early. The owner of Jax Service Center in Cortlandville said the quick turnaround time from when the pandemic intensified locally in March to the rollout of the vaccine in December gives him pause, particularly as other diseases still lack effective treatments.
“How did they get out this vaccine so quick?” he said.
To get Black Americans get the vaccine when eligible, trust will need to be built by showing the vaccine is safe. That may be easier said than done but officials in Central New York are working on ways to reach out, show the vaccine is safe and encourage Black Americans to get it.
Prior to the release of the COVID vaccine, Smith said he was initially hesitant to get the vaccine once he was eligible.
He particularly had concerns about the safety of the vaccine, questioning the quick turnaround from the virus’ outbreak to when vaccines first started becoming available late last year.
Now, though, having seen President Joe Biden take the vaccine, his attitudes on the vaccine have somewhat changed.
“That makes me feel like it’s safe,” Smith said.
This in part has come from his trust in Biden over former President Donald Trump, whom Smith said he didn’t trust as much because Trump did not wear a mask often and, in Smith’s opinion, did not take the pandemic seriously.
Still, Smith said he may want to hold off getting the vaccine, at least at first.
Also, he said he is concerned that even if he wants to get the vaccine, he, as a Black man, may not have the same access as white people.
One reason for this skepticism is the fact that governmental and health agencies are specifically trying to reach Black and other non-white communities about the vaccine.
“If you have to say that, then there’s an issue,” Smith said.
Further hesitancy comes from the historical background of distrust from Black Americans used without their knowledge or consent for medical experiments, with devastating long-term effects or even death.
Smith brought up the example of the Tuskegee Study to emphasize this.
The experiment, which started in the 1930s and went until the 1970s, was conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute to test for syphilis, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the 600 men taking part in the study — 399 with syphilis and 201 without it — never received proper treatment.
“Even when penicillin became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947, researchers did not offer it to the subjects,” reports the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A review panel of the experiment in 1972 found “nothing to show that subjects were ever given the choice of quitting the study, even when this new, highly effective treatment became widely used.”
“How do I know you’re not going to do the same thing again in 2021?,” Smith asked.
What will be needed for him to change his mind? “If everybody’s taking it and they’re OK, then I’m willing to take it,” Smith said.
A HISTORY OF MISTRUST AND DISCRIMINATION
This mistrust is not surprising given the Black experience of mistreatment and inequality, particularly in health care and medicine, said Danielle Taana Smith, a professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University.
The Tuskegee Study is one of the most famous examples Smith noted, as is the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who, in 1951, had cancer cells taken from her body during treatment without her consent, according to NewScientist.
Lacks’ family did not know about this more than 20 years later, all the while the cells had been kept alive outside of Lacks’ body, which had never been done. Lacks’ family did not receive any recognition or compensation for the cells.
More recently, Smith noted a New York City Commission of Human Rights investigation into drug screening policies at hospitals in which Black and Latina mothers are more likely to have their babies taken away as a result of testing positive for drugs. Smith noted that these are based on one screening, which could provide a false positive.
The pattern has helped create the distrust between Black communities against the medical world and treatments, including te COVID-19 vaccine, Smith said.
“They reinforce the idea that Black bodies may be more expendable to ensure the greater public health good,” she said.
The events of 2020, including the protests of racial discrimination and police brutality, the pandemic and the pandemic-fueled recession all brought into focus the injustices Black people face, Smith said.
Reforming these issues will be a key part in building trust.
While this won’t happen immediately, Smith provided some ways that could help build trust in the vaccine:
Have local community members who are well known administer the vaccine.
Publicize when well-known people — including national or statewide government officials — get the vaccine to show trust.
Have municipalities or businesses provide transportation to vaccine sites.
Have employers provide paid time off for employees if they start having bad reactions to the vaccine.
That, she said, will build on the critical factor to get people to take the vaccine: trust.
“To see our leaders being vaccinated and speaking about their experiences, that’s important for people to have faith” in the vaccine, Smith said.
Watch for yourself
COVID-19 Office Hours videos can be attended by visiting the Tompkins County Health Department website at www.tompkinscountyny.gov/ health or by calling 211.
Video recordings of sessions are also available on the Tompkins County, NY YouTube page.
ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS Tompkins County is trying to build that trust through a series of livestreamed office hours with experts targeting specific communities.
Health officials have recognized the United States has not always provided equal treatment for people of color, said Dominick Recckio, the communications director for the Tompkins County Administration and the chief public information Officer at the Emergency Operations Center for COVID-19.
“The health system has not historically been the kindest or most equitable to communities of color,” he said, noting examples like the Tuskegee Study.
The Tompkins health department is trying to change that with outreach to non-white communites to answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and help promote its safety.
Its COVID-19 Office Hours series has local doctors answer and discuss questions and issues around the vaccine.
The virtual events, held on the department’s website or available to listen in by phone, have focused on and taken questions and concerns from different groups, Recckio said.
One session last week specifically took questions and concerns from communities of color and featured Dr. Jada Hamilton, the deputy medical director of Cornell Health, and a Black woman.
Questions and concerns have addressed whether the vaccine can affect one’s DNA and whether the vaccine puts a live version of the virus into one’s body.
The answer is no to both, Recckio said.
“Hearing or seeing someone who looks like you be the messenger” has been a helpful way of instilling trust into communities of color, Recckio said. He hopes the series creates a network of information, where one person attends a session and passes on the information to friends and relatives.
This, he said, is especially important for non-white groups who may be more skeptical of the vaccine.
“This is a safe and effective vaccine and it’s not going to harm people of color,” he said.