Experts concerned over minority communities’ potential rejection of COVID-19 vaccine

Several COVID-19 vaccines are on the horizon, but minorities may be hesitant to take them. Photo by Fernando Zhiminaicela/Pixabay

By Colbi Edmonds
BU News Service

Health experts and social leaders are concerned minority communities will reject the COVID-19 vaccine based on a historical distrust of the government.

The COVID-19 virus disproportionately affects America’s Black population because of “systemic discrimination” in the medical field dating back to the ‘30s, according to Boston health expert David Martin.

He cited the 40 year long Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where researchers misled 600 Black men into thinking they were receiving proper treatment for syphilis, but were only given placebos even when a cure was discovered.

Martin also mentioned the research of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells, where researchers have profited millions of dollars off her cells — which are immortal and have been coined “HeLa” cells — without the consent of her or her family.

“Things like that are well known in the Black community and reasons to mistrust the medical establishment, but also a dramatic underinvestment in the health care and wellness of communities of color,” said Martin, chief executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council (MHC).

Martin is “very concerned” about the willingness of communities of color to accept the vaccine, and the MHC has committed to addressing this concern with a campaign aimed at answering the questions many Black people have in regards to a vaccine.

“Especially if you’re a Black person in this country, and you know the legacy of racism in medicine, you’re going to want really good answers to those questions,” said Martin.

The MHC launched a website focused on localizing health resources for Boston neighborhoods so minority communities have access to information and people who can connect with them and help address their concerns about vaccines.

“It’s about building that infrastructure now, so that in three months or six months when a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the general public, people feel comfortable taking it,” said Martin.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious disease, has started trying to build that infrastructure and trust. Fauci met with Reverend Liz Walker and Reverend Gloria White-Hammond M.D on a Zoom webinar Tuesday night to address these concerns with local residents.

In a Zoom webinar hosted by the The City Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Fauci supported a “herd immunity” mentality, which protects everyone in the community and depends on the responsibility of individuals. 

If everyone is vaccinated or recovered from the virus, COVID-19 has nowhere to go when it tries to break that blanket of protection.

“If all of the strong herd sticks together, they protect the vulnerable,” said Fauci. “Your personal health becomes part of the public health.”

Americans should not be concerned with the speed at which the vaccine was manufactured because the process of developing a vaccine is sound, said Fauci. He also advised minorities to get involved with the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials so the government can prove it is not only effective for whites, but also minorities.

“Based on the data and based on the FDA’s recommendation, I would wait for my turn and I would definitely take [a COVID-19 vaccine],” said Fauci.

The Black communities in the Mattapan and Roxbury neighborhoods in Boston make up over half of the total population, according to the census data. Community leader John Smith has seen the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate systemic problems that affect these communities.

Smith’s organization, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury area, advises COVID-19 regulations such as social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the virus. But Smith said it will be difficult to convince people of color to take the vaccine.

“I think it will be difficult for folks to accept [the vaccine] because of the historical nature,” said Smith, who serves as interim executive director of the DSNI. “We have to work through the idea of tracking and those kinds of things where people are inherently a little bit suspicious of the government.”

The DSNI will focus on education to help its community understand preventative health care.

“I think that on some level we will have to launch an education campaign that really helps people to understand the importance of the vaccine and why it’s important to do it,” said Smith.

Fauci emphasized the importance of taking the vaccine, and urged Black and brown communities to take it, despite concerns of distrust they may have with the government.

“I totally understand what you’ve been through and I plead with you that we as a community… can do something about this if we abide by public health measures and get vaccinated,” said Fauci. “Protect yourselves, your family and your community.”

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