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Educating Black Americans about the coronavirus vaccine could increase their willingness to get it

Physician Tunji Ladipo gets a coronavirus vaccine this month at Roseland Community Hospital in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Educating Black Americans on the value of getting the coronavirus vaccine may be one of the best ways to increase the percentage of them willing to do so, according to some medical professionals.

According to a Pew Research Center survey from earlier this month, 6 in 10 U.S. adults would “definitely” or “probably” take get the vaccine if it were available to them. However, only 42 percent of Black Americans were as willing to take the vaccine.

This hesitancy is a concern to many health professionals, given how tragic covid-19’s impact has been on the Black community. Black Americans are 2.8 times as likely to die of covid-19 as White Americans and 1.4 times as likely to contract the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anxiety about the vaccine among many Black Americans is rooted in a lack of trust in the medical community as a whole, based on history.

Dan Royles, author of “To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS,” wrote about some of the reasons for the mistrust in The Washington Post earlier this month.

“The root of the problem lies not in Black communities themselves, but in a medical system that has historically dehumanized them and continues to do so,” he wrote. “The result is that the history of medical racism in the United States presents a significant barrier to anything approaching equitable care in the present and future.”

I asked Valerie Fitzhugh, interim chair of the pathology department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday about what could be done to improve Black Americans’ willingness to take the vaccine. Fitzhugh joined one of the coronavirus vaccine clinical trials.

Q: I was speaking to some individuals this past weekend from the African American community who are still anxious about taking a vaccine despite what they’ve seen so far and despite the number of Black people from the medical community, like yourself, who have been speaking out about the importance of it. At this point, what do you say to be more convincing to this demographic that’s been disproportionately affected and harmed by this virus to encourage them to move forward with taking this vaccine?
A: We know that there are issues of trust within the Black community ... about the medical establishment, and that’s rightful. You know there are many things that happened to, particularly, Black people when it comes to medicine. We saw recently this past weekend, you know, the death of Dr. Susan Moore, who was a physician, a family physician in Indianapolis, Indiana, who lost her life in her battle to covid. And she put a video on Facebook speaking to her experience about how she wasn’t being treated and she’d be treated differently if she was a Caucasian patient. So we know that there are still issues of this to this very day.
What I try to do when I speak about the vaccine is come from a place of trust and education. I don’t want to force anybody to do anything. I don’t want people to feel like they have to do it because I’ve said so. What I do try to do is educate as best I can, talk about, you know, what we see, how efficacious, what are the side effects, what can you expect when you get the vaccine. Because I think these conversations are important. And to also speak to concerns about the speed in which the vaccine was produced because that is one that a lot of people have a concern about. But the reality is that never before have we seen resources kicked toward trying to defeat something the way we have seen with this coronavirus. So those are the angles that I use and ... part of the reason I joined this trial was to show people who looked like me that in a lot of ways things have changed. Trials are safe. People are watched. No one is forced to be in a trial. So I figured by doing my part and putting myself out there and sharing that, hopefully, that will help people if they don’t come around to at least get educated on this important topic.

As more Americans get in line to take the vaccine, the medical community’s work to insure that the groups that have been most severely affected by this disease will continue. Putting public experts before Black Americans that look like them, who are sensitive to their worries and fears and who are knowledgeable about the devastating effects of medical racism could increase confidence in the vaccine among one of the demographic groups that need it most.