Distrust of the medical system among Black Americans poses added vaccination challenge for COVID-19

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When Sandra Lindsay, a Black nurse at a hospital in Queens, N.Y., became the first person in the U.S. to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Monday of last week, much of the medical world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The historic moment, captured on video, symbolized the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 nightmare.

“It feels surreal,” Lindsay said after receiving the vaccine. “It is a huge sense of relief for me, and hope.”

Lindsay also noted that it was important for a Black American to be seen getting the vaccine so as to assure those who often distrust the medical system and have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, due to history, my population — minorities, people that look like me — are hesitant to take vaccines,” she said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other top government health officials received their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The first two members of the National Institutes of Health team to receive the shot were both Black — one man and one woman.

Despite the fact that 71 percent of Black Americans say they know someone who has either died or been hospitalized after contracting COVID-19, just 42 percent said they planned to get vaccinated for it, according to a December survey by the Pew Research Center.

In the U.S., Black people are nearly three times as likely to get infected with COVID-19 as whites, according to a study by the National Urban League, and are twice as likely to die from the disease. So the video of Lindsay receiving her first injection of the vaccine was significant.

Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on Dec. 14 (Mark Lennihan — Pool/Getty Images)

That same Monday, five frontline workers, known as the “first five” at the University of Maryland Medical Center, also received the vaccine. Two of the five were Black women — one a nurse and the other a doctor.

“My mother had COVID, my brother had COVID, in addition to my brother-in-law,” Shawn Hendricks, nursing director of medicine at UMMC and one of the “first five,” told Yahoo News in a video interview. “It took my mother two months to recover in the hospital from COVID. So I knew that COVID had already hit my family, and I didn’t want it to hit my household too.”

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Dr. Sharon Henry, a professor of surgery at UMMC and another of the “first five,” said she had no hesitancy in receiving the vaccine.

“My thought was, why not be out in front of it?” Henry told Yahoo News. “Why not be one of the first people who do that?”

But as many medical professionals expressed relief at the opportunity to get the vaccine and more videos surfaced online of Black physicians taking it, critics also stepped up their level of skepticism.

“Yeaahhhh, it’s a no from me dawg,” one Twitter user wrote. “Some people in the health field still believe Black people don’t feel pain. And y’all want me to believe in a vaccine that took less than a year to develop. GTFO.”

“If Black Lives Don’t Matter to America,” another Twitter user wrote. “Then, Why in the hell should we believe Black Health Matters?”

Dr. Uché Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity and a Yahoo News medical contributor, spotted the disturbing trend as it unfolded on social networking sites.

“I went on social media and saw comments like ‘They worry about us now, but they didn’t care about us before,’” Blackstock told Yahoo News.

Yves Duroseau, chair of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

But Blackstock said she also understood the mistrust. Historically, Black Americans have been left behind when it comes to health care advances, if not downright abused. One instance of this was the infamous Tuskegee study of the mid-1900s in which doctors let Black men die from syphilis under the guise of experimentation. But other examples aren’t difficult to find. A June report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black infants still have more than twice the risk of dying as white ones.

“Why should [we] trust the same government that injected black people with infections?” another Twitter user wrote. “This isn’t normal. The way they are pushing this vaccines should be SUS to everyone.”

Blackstock says that for Black health care providers, there is an added responsibility to “direct the narrative” because there are so few numbers. Of all active physicians in the U.S., only 5 percent identify as Black or African American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“Until there is real work done in the education field, health care and more, that distrust is going to always be there,” Blackstock said. “It’s not the distrust of the vaccine, it’s a distrust of the system.”

Whatever the root cause, 35 percent of Black Americans in a December study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they would probably or definitely not get the vaccine even if it was determined to be safe and was available free of charge.

Of the Black Americans who were unsure about taking the vaccine, a startling 71 percent said they were concerned about side effects. About half were worried they would actually get the virus, and another 48 percent were distrustful about vaccines as a whole.

Chester holds a vial of Lindsay’s Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Henry, the Maryland doctor, admitted she was one of the people who had concerns.

“In the political climate that we were dealing with up until the certified Electoral College results came back, I must admit I did have some questions about the process,” she said. “I felt like politics was totally influencing the messages that were being put out and the people who were trying to put messages out.”

It wasn’t until after reading more about the science involved in the vaccine and having more confidence in a new administration that she was put at ease.

“I think the corners that were cut were not the scientific corners,” Henry added. “The shortcuts that were taken that got the vaccine out quickly were those that had to do with production and distribution, more so than those that had to do with scientific rigor or the process of developing the vaccine and testing the vaccine. Those stayed true to the scientific process.”

Now Henry urges everyone, especially Black Americans, to get the vaccine. Blackstock does too, but adds, “It’s not my job as a health care worker to change anyone’s mind. My job, especially as a Black woman, is to give people clear information.”

Eugenia C. South, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and faculty director of the Urban Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, posted a Twitter thread last Thursday about the need to “normalize vaccine hesitancy.” South, who is Black, was initially outspoken about not wanting to take the vaccine until she did her own research.

“I am not an early adaptor,” South tweeted shortly after getting the vaccine. “I held onto my flip phone until 2010. So my natural inclination was to say — I’ll wait. See how others do with vaccine before I take it. Layer on top of that the fact that the vaccine seemed like a political tool used by the soon to be former President. I don’t trust him and that made me mistrust the vaccine development process.”

3 weeks ago I was a hard NO to getting the COVID vaccine. And yet here I am 👇🏾. A thread on covid vaccine hesitancy from a Black doctor who believes in science. pic.twitter.com/p0myG8X2dq

— Eugenia (Gina) South, MD MS (@Eugenia_South) December 17, 2020

South wrote that what “clinched it” for her was reading stories of people who were in vaccine trials, seeing the other Black scientists who made the vaccine, her mom and ultimately seeing the science.

“My biggest concern is still some rare, severe, yet to be documented long term side effect,” she tweeted. “But I am going to take that chance because I don’t want to die from COVID. Plus there are already documented, not so rare, long term side effects of COVID itself. … I share this to normalize vaccine hesitancy around COVID, which is very different from vaccine hesitancy for childhood vaccines (my kids are fully vaccinated). It’s okay to be hesitant, take time to gather facts & opinions, and reach a decision. Let’s not forget this is new.”

Given that nearly 40 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have been in Black and Latino people, according to the CDC, the arrival of vaccines might be seen as unqualified good news in those communities. But extinguishing decades of mistrust isn’t quite so easy.

With the COVID-19 vaccine, Blackstock said, “we need to balance it out with white folks getting the shots on camera. That’s why people are suspicious. The next few months are critical.”

As one of the first Americans to receive the vaccine, Hendricks stressed that building trust will be crucial in order to fully protect the population from COVID-19.

“I think that if we’re going to get any type of hold on this pandemic, we have to do widespread vaccination so that we can start to have some immunity so we can get to some type of normalcy,” she said. “Otherwise, I only see this pandemic getting worse and lasting longer.”

Cover thumbnail: Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo/Bloomberg via Getty Images (2)

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