The dawning of a new year and the earliest vaccine rollouts have yet to improve the grim number of COVID-19 infections.
And while COVID-19 rates among Black Americans are among the highest in the country, skepticism about the vaccines is also disproportionately high.
Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, says that mistrust is well documented.
“We know that there is a fair amount of skepticism about this vaccine in the Black community and there is still a wait-and-see attitude,” Gayle said.
According to the recent ProPublica article “Vaccinating Black Americans Is Essential. Key States Aren’t Doing the Work to Combat Hesitancy,” some states, including Illinois, do not have a plan to address that hesitancy among Black residents, nor do they have solid demographic data about who is getting the vaccine.
Gayle says that lack of a plan is a serious problem.
“It is critical that for a disease that is disproportionately impacting communities of color that we make the information available so that people can trust the science, can trust the process of this, and can access safe and effective vaccines,” she said.
ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen says that while there are well-known historic reasons for the mistrust some Black Americans have for the health care industry, there’s no single issue that can be easily resolved.
“Having done a lot of interviews and talked to both patients and doctors, the Black community is not one monolith,” Chen said. “There’s not one reason for vaccine hesitancy. Some people point to their distrust of the government now, who say, ‘Look at the pharmaceutical industry now.’ One of the doctors I interviewed said, ‘We don’t see people who look like us at the research table now, and so we don’t think that they have our interests in mind now.’”
One way the Chicago Department of Public Health has demonstrated vaccine safety has been through public events in which officials and Black and Latino health care providers receive the vaccine.
Gayle says the key to building trust is reliably showing up in the affected communities, reflecting the makeup of those communities and offering clear information.
“Extensive community engagement is necessary to build trust in Black and Latinx communities that have been hard hit by the disease but hesitant to embrace the vaccine,” Gayle said. “Community-based organizations and other partner organizations can support community outreach and foster accountability. Hard-hit communities must see people who look like them, who they understand, who they trust not only to be vaccinated but disseminates clear, consistent information about the vaccine.”
Chen reports that the industry is doing some work to build trust.
“There was a really big pressure to make sure there was representation in these vaccine trials, and so there were people of color in the vaccine trials and so we’re able to point to the data in the trials to say … that we know the vaccine is efficacious … and I think that’s a step forward,” Chen said.
However, Chen has concerns about the way vaccination data is being collected by individual states.
“The CDC in its playbook for the states has said that it wants the states to report data to the federal agency which includes information about the race and ethnicity of everyone who has been vaccinated. But it doesn’t have any real enforcement mechanism other than please tell us,” Chen said. “So it seems that this is something which the CDC is hoping to collect but it isn’t something that we know we are going to reliably be able to get. So the issue that I’m concerned about here is that we’re not really going to be able to know, how successful are we at actually getting the vaccine to these vulnerable populations?”