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To Overcome Black Resistance to Vaccines, We All Need to Understand It

By John Lumpkin | February 12, 2021 | 5 min read | Industry Perspectives, Drivers of Health, Thought Leadership

Young Black woman wearing a face mask shows off her arm, bandaged after getting a covid vaccine

In North Carolina, Black people make up 22% of our population, but only 13.51% of the state’s pool of first-dose COVID-19 vaccine recipients thus far.

As COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out in January, some Americans couldn’t sign up fast enough. Others expressed some reluctance. Doubts about the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines are largely unfounded. But among people of color these fears are the result of systemic inequities that are very real.

Today, millions of doses have been distributed. Only a minimal number of recipients have experienced serious reactions. Signs indicate that the initial skepticism is starting to wane among the overall population. More Americans are eager to receive their doses with the expectation that, someday soon, they’ll be able to return to restaurants, cinemas, music venues and museums without fear … to hold grandchildren without risk … to smile without masks.

But polling suggests that many Black Americans remain skeptical. These anxieties aren’t imagined. They are the natural result of a long and continuing history of exploitation and abuse of people of color in the name of science and medicine.

This a history that we all need to confront if our nation is to meet the challenges of this pandemic.

For many Americans, the infamous Tuskegee Study is a case study of the medical community’s historic neglect and overt mistreatment of Black Americans. Beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute to study the health effects of untreated syphilis. Doctors recruited 600 Black men, most of whom were sharecroppers.

For their participation, all of the men received free medical exams, meals and burial insurance. What they didn’t receive was treatment for syphilis. These men joined the study without informed consent. They suffered so that doctors could observe as the disease was left to run its course … not for a matter of months, but over years. Forty years into the ongoing study, press coverage finally provoked public outrage. The experiment was finally shut down in 1972.

Keep in mind that this disturbing episode wasn’t limited to the distant Jim Crow past. The project stretched well into the modern era. Nor is the Tuskegee Study an isolated event. Unfortunately, there are many more recent examples of unethical research practices involving and exploiting people of color.

This is why our vaccine rollout campaigns should emphasize outreach efforts to engage communities of color, respectful of the fact that their skepticism has been shaped by decades of structural racism.

Just this weekend, I joined 59 other Black members of the prestigious National Academy of Medicine to issue a joint statement articulating support for the COVID-19 vaccines. Crucially, the tone addresses anxieties without trying to minimize them. These scientists build trust by speaking as a united voice from within the Black community:

“We are scientists, physicians, healthcare professionals and public health experts. We are also sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters. We are brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. We are your neighbor. The person in line at the grocery store checkout. The person sitting next to you in church. We are members of the black community. Many of us fought our way into healthcare professions specifically to care for our community. Many of us have devoted our careers to exposing racism in healthcare. All of us have focused our careers on improving health for all. That is why we support the COVID-19 vaccine, and we encourage you to get vaccinated.”

Similarly, the National Medical Association—the leading professional organization for Black doctors—created an independent task force to vet the data from the safety trials. Following this work, the NMA issued a statement endorsing the FDA’s authorization for both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines and initiated outreach campaigns targeting communities of color. 

With people of color at a significantly higher risk of exposure, hospitalization and death from the virus, any opportunity to spotlight support for the vaccines among peers and leaders in the Black community will have a significant impact.

I implore everyone to explore the vital resources we have provided at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina to learn more about the vaccine. Help spread the word to debunk the rumors about the vaccine.  Everyone should claim their place in line to get vaccinated.

As my National Academy of Medicine colleagues have said: Do it for yourself. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for our communities. Do it because we should not tolerate one more preventable death.