By Saundra Young
Feb. 2021 — Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are about 4 times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly 3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.
Yet African Americans have nearly the lowest rates of vaccination among any ethnic group. In fact, white Americans are being vaccinated at a rate 3 times higher than Black Americans. New CDC figures show that of those who have received at least the first dose of a vaccine, 5.4% are Black people, compared to 60% who are white people. According to recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, about 35% of Black Americans said they don’t plan to get the vaccine, citing fears about safety and concerns that the vaccines are so new.
But unlike Tuskegee, he says, Black scientists had a major role in the development of both vaccines.
“Tuskegee was horrible,” he says. “This is nothing like Tuskegee because we have been involved at every level of developing the vaccine from the beginning. The scientists who were involved in creating it to the ones involved in approving it, we’ve been involved at every level, at all phases.”
Hildreth, also a voting member of the FDA committee that authorized emergency use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, says the vaccines are safe.
“None of the steps typically involved in evaluating the safety of a vaccine were omitted,” he says. “They’re all there, they’re all done to completion, and they all demonstrate that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
Hildreth says the school acknowledges that the hesitancy is well-founded, and it offers information to people, specifically minority communities, to help them understand that the vaccines are safe.
“This idea of DNA being damaged or our genes being changed, that’s been addressed,” he says. “There are no microchips to monitor people and where they go; it would be impossible to do in a biological vaccine like this. But I think what health care professionals should do, they should get the information they need to feel comfortable about the vaccine and then share that with their patients.”
But Tuskegee is only part of why so many African Americans are not getting vaccinated. A historical lack of access to care and disparities in care are other reasons.
An Investment in Access and Equality
“As a nation, we need to invest in Black serving institutions to offset disparities in health outcomes,” says Leon McDougle, MD, president of the National Medical Association and a professor of family medicine at Ohio State University College of Medicine. The association, the largest and oldest national organization of African American doctors in the country, recently released a report that found the pandemic has highlighted disparities in the Black community.
Putting a Focus on Gaining Trust
Dorothy Roberts, JD, pushes back on how the issue has been framed.
“It’s not that Black people have an irrational fear of new medical technologies, it’s that they have an awareness of a long history of being disrespected, mistreated, and violated by the government and by health care professionals,” she says.
“If we start out with the assumption that Black people have to be convinced to trust the vaccine because there’s a problem with Black people’s attitude toward medicine and science, that’s the wrong approach,” says Roberts, founding director of the University of Pennsylvania Program on Race, Science & Society. “The approach should be how can medicine and science be made more deserving of Black people’s trust.”
It’s not just that there was a past history of medical experimentation on Black people that makes them suspicious of new technologies today. There is a continuing practice of racism in medicine and government policies that many Black people have experienced themselves. That’s why there’s a skepticism about the government rollout of the vaccine. It’s a rational skepticism, and the only way to address it is to work toward ending the racism in medicine and health care that caused the skepticism in the first place.”
Stovall-Johnson, the mathematics teacher, agrees.
“There’s been a whole lot of effort that has gone into portraying this vaccine as being safe, yet the same amount of thought, effort, and concern has not been put into figuring out how to get the vaccine to Black people and Black communities. That’s a disconnect, but it’s not surprising. Black people don’t have equal access to things like quality education, good health care, safe communities; the vaccine is no different. It’s like everything else in our society. There is never equal access for Black people.”