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Making It Plain: What Black America Needs to Know About COVID-19 and Vaccines

By Darryl Sellers

The new year has brought with it, more daunting challenges in the African American community’s fight against COVID-19. More transmissible variants of the coronavirus which have emerged are swiftly sweeping their way across the United States. This latest trend in the almost year-long pandemic is especially troubling for Black people who are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized and 3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.
Despite these stark numbers, COVID vaccination rates for African Americans are among the lowest of all ethnicities. In fact, February data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that white Americans are getting vaccinated at a rate which is 3 times higher than Black Americans. An even more staggering statistic shows that only 5.4% of Black people have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine compared to 60% of white people. According to a January poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are still 43% of African Americans who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine; taking a “wait and see” approach to find out how well the vaccine works for other people.
African American communities are still brimming with mistrust following historical and contemporary experiences of medical discrimination, including the decades-long Tuskegee experiments and the Henrietta Lacks saga. These are just two of many scars that still resonate today and are at the forefront of the Black community’s view of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout through a skeptical lens. Meanwhile, the pandemic is continuing to ravage our country with the U.S. sadly surpassing 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to a recent report.
One month into the Biden Administration’s start in the White House, they are already moving forward on the mission to prioritize building trust with African American communities. Dr.
Marcella Nunez-Smith, one of the event’s guest speakers and director of the White House’s Health Equity Task Force, said government and medical institutions have actively earned mistrust. But she assured the more than 700,000+ viewers that she is part of an administration which is driven to change the narrative for Black communities.
For the moment, the worst wave of the current coronavirus infections seems to be behind us. According to February data from the New York Times, new COVID cases have declined by a whopping 47% since early January. As America starts to mass vaccinate the population in hopes of continuing to lower infection rates and death totals, Dr. Nunez-Smith said that’s why the Biden Administration is taking the imperative steps to lessen the impact of social determinants which affect healthcare, housing and transportation in Black communities. This will help to ensure Black communities don’t go backwards.
“We also have to make sure that vaccinations are free,” Dr. Nunez-Smith said. “That is an important consideration,” she said. “But vaccination alone is not sufficient. Specific to COVID- 19, we have to make sure everyone has equal access to things like testing for COVID.”
Also, at the center of the issue of equity in the dissemination of COVID vaccines to African Americans is Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. She’s also co-director of the prestigious National Academies of Medicine committee which was commissioned last fall by the CDC to suBM:it recommendations for a framework which will help to determine how the COVID-19 vaccines can be distributed equitably.
Dr. Gayle noted the framework recognizes that communities of color have been the hardest hit and are disproportionally affected by the pandemic. But race isn’t the only factor that put Black people at a higher risk of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. This concern also relates to the impact of race and racism. Dr. Gayle said this has made the project a landmark undertaking. “It’s the first time that equity has been front and center in title and design of a vaccine rollout,” she said.
Another dilemma regarding COVID-19 is the misinformation, a lack of information and deep- seated mistrust in the Black community regarding the vaccines and the process used to develop them. Morial said this has led to the concern, for some African Americans, that the vaccine development was rushed or that the process is attached to ghosts of the Tuskegee experiments. To confront these concerns, Morial suggests that government, states, counties and cities foster broad engagement, public relations and advertising campaigns to provide Black communities with accurate information, will help to create transparency relating to COVID-19 and the vaccines which will help to build confidence in African American communities.
While Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Dr. Helene Gayle and Mark Morial continue to be prominent and strong advocates to vaccinate Black people age 65+ and frontline workers during this stage of the fight against COVID-19, Reverend Butts is also continuing to be a champion for the cause. He’s spreading the gospel, encouraging his congregation and other faith-based communities to rise above reluctancy, trust the COVID-19 vaccines and take the “leap of faith” to get vaccinated. This really gives us our best “shot” to stay healthy, combat COVID-19 and the more contagious virus variants and win the war that’s being waged against the virus. “The Black pastor is still the most trusted of all,” Reverend Butts said. “And I think because we are the church, we will have great success, the same way we did when we confronted the AIDS pandemic.”
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