Anissa Durham | Contributing Writer
African Americans’ distrust for the COVID-19 vaccine should come as no surprise and should be taken more seriously.
Black Americans make up roughly 6% of the San Diego region, yet nationwide, Black people are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19. Still, the hesitation to get vaccinated persists. Local experts came together on Thursday to address the fears within the community, encouraging vaccination and dispelling myths.
The Multicultural Health Foundation launched a campaign to reach the Black community in the fight against COVID. They also held the “Don’t Hesitate to Vaccinate! Our experts tell you why,” discussion forum. It was keynoted by Dr. Rodney Hood, who is on the tri-chair of California’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, Dr. Jamal Gwathney, the clinical director for the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego and Dr. Wilma Wooten, public health officer for San Diego County.
The panelists of doctors each shared sentiments of understanding, fact-based information and prompting San Diegans, especially those in the Black community to get vaccinated. But is this enough to persuade the 58% of Black Americans nationwide who do not trust the vaccine, into getting it?
Dr. Gwathney said he joined the Moderna clinical trial in August of last year, as a way to reassure other Black folks that the trials are safe and can be trusted. He said typically clinical trials only have about 5% of African Americans participating.
“We need to have more representation in clinical trials,” he said.
Dr. Wooten discussed the difference between the influenza virus and COVID-19 strain, although they do share many similar symptoms, the flu vaccine is much different than the COVID vaccine. She said their goal is to vaccinate 70% of the San Diego County population age 16 and older by July 1, 2021. They are hoping to vaccinate 25,000 San Diegans a day, right now the county has begun vaccinating just over 22,000 a day.
With the number of COVID-19 cases increasingly fluctuating, local doctors are trying to get the message out to communities hardest hit.
While the reasons for hesitation towards the vaccine varies, much of it lies in the American health care system’s history of exploiting and unethically treating Black and African Americans. A poll done last summer by Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated revealed one in 5 Black adults said they were treated unfairly because of their race in the past year while receiving health care for themselves or a family member. A startling 70% of Black Americans believe that people are treated unfairly based on race when seeking medical services.
Dr. Hood did not hold back when relishing why Black Americans are rightfully concerned.
“This goes back to what I call an ethnohistoric legacy of slavery, Jim Crow (laws) and Samuel A. Cartwright who experimented on Blacks in Louisiana, he called himself a professor of the negro. We had Samuel G. Morton, a physician who said Blacks were inferior, we had J. Marion Sims who operated on Black women to the point where they were addicted to opiates,” he said.
Justin Dottery, a student at Southwestern College said that knowing the history of Black people in this country, it is hard for him to believe that the vaccine is safe. Like many in the community, he is wary about the long-term side effects it may have on Black people. He wants people to get more informed about the contents of the vaccine and how it will affect them, “Everybody wants so bad to return to normalcy and go on with their lives that they are not thinking about what exactly is in this vaccine and what is it doing to my body,” Dottery said. “We see in the Tuskegee experiment, in experiments involving people of color they don’t typically turn out the best.”
One of the most well-known examples of unethical and inhumane treatment of Black people was the 40-year government-funded Tuskegee syphilis study. The program began in 1932 with the U.S Public Health Service deceitfully tricking hundreds of men with and without syphilis, into believing they would be receiving free health care. Black men were told they would be treated for “bad blood,” yet did not receive any treatment for their illness. The truth is, doctors watched them suffer in pain and agony, leaving dozens dead as a result.
“Don’t believe it’s just about Tuskegee, there is a multi-century history of inappropriateness, the reluctance and distrust in scientists and medical research in the Black community is alive and well, and this is a significant reason why,” Dr. Hood said.
The reluctance in the community does not stop there, concerns have been raised about the swift creation of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine. According to Dr. Shirin Mazumder, an infectious disease specialist at Methodist LeBonheur in Memphis, T.N. “In the vaccine development trials, usually a vaccine takes about 15 to 20 years to develop, that’s what’s normal,” says Mazumder. “We don’t have long term data. Moderna and Pfizer have short term data, it’s only a couple of months…the long-term data is pending.”
Ebony Shumate, a paraeducator in Chula Vista echoes a similar sentiment, she said she thinks the vaccine was unsafely rushed and came out too fast. She suffers from allergies so severe she is unable to take the flu vaccine, she is unsure if she will be able to safely take the COVID vaccine.
“It’s kind of sketchy, I think everything is up in the air and I’m wondering if it’s really safe to get it or not,” she said. “I have asked health care professionals and they don’t have a clear answer either.”
The U.S. government launched Operation Warp Speed in May of last year with the goal of providing millions of vaccine doses in a shorter time frame. Unfortunately, the name of the operation is not helping many Black Americans and other people of color feel a sense of urgency in trusting the vaccine.
“Was it fast? Yes, it was,” Dr. Gwathney said. “Did it need to be fast? Yes, it did.”
His reasoning is based on the fact that 25.8 million Americans have gotten COVID, as a result, more than 450,000 people have died. The continued distrust could potentially exacerbate the grave devastation COVID-19 has had on the Black community. If reluctance to participate in testing, vaccination or treatment continues to go untreated, more Americans will die.
“Vaccine hesitancy… actually makes the risk of health disparities worse in people of color and minority communities,” Dr. Hood said.
The panelists agreed whether or not to get the vaccine is ultimately up to each individual. There is no law in place mandating or requiring people to get the two-dose vaccination. However, they heavily encourage and endorse Pfizer and Moderna as one of the safest options in the prevention of the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Wooten listed the three W’s suggested by the CDC. “Wash your hands. Watch your distance. And wear your face covering,” she said. Although she feels getting vaccinated is your safest option, she strongly advises San Diegans to take all the necessary precautions in place.
Dr. Hood said addressing the hesitancy head-on is the only way to build trustworthiness within the community. Having a targeted outreach approach with education, access and providing resources are some of the tools he plans on continuing to use to ensure the safety of Black San Diegans.
“We must not be afraid to talk about race,” he said.