Local, NJ Officials Work to Overcome Vaccine Skepticism Among Blacks, Latinos


Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com.

This is part of the reporting fellowship on “Racial Disparities in the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution” conducted by the Center for Cooperative Media for ethnic and community media in New Jersey

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice, readily admits there is “a well-deserved” skepticism within the African American community when it comes to trusting the medical community.

“In trying to make sure all communities get access to the coronavirus vaccine in New Jersey and around the country, that skepticism must be accounted for,” he said.

Medical experiments during slavery, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and healthcare outcome disparities too numerous to count are all etched well in the minds of Blacks when they are told to trust medicine and science when their health is a concern.

Those healthcare disparities between African Americans and other people of color came roaring back into the headlines during the coronavirus pandemic, where Blacks and Latinos nationwide were infected and hospitalized disproportionately.

With three new COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States, Blacks and Latinos have been hesitant — if the vaccine was available at all in their community — because of the past.

Boyer, said, though, he sees times changing and while recognizing the history and how many in his own congregation at Woodbury Bethel AME Church were reluctant at first, people are slowly being won over.

Rev. Charles Boyer.

“I don’t have any numbers, but I can tell you from anecdotal experiences and discussions with Black pastors and Black faith community leaders, that hesitancy is dropping more and more when more people who know people have gotten the vaccine,” Boyer said of that personal connection that is needed to get more African Americans interested in taking the vaccine.

“It is quickly dissipating. Now, the issue is more of the barriers. Critical information is getting out,”

The History

One of the most infamous medical experiments involving Blacks was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” or simply the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.” Impoverished Black men were told from 1932 to 1972 that they were receiving free health care” when in actuality they were being observed for the progress of untreated syphilis given to them. The study, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resulted in 128 deaths before it was leaked to the press and terminated.

Then there is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Unbeknownst to her and her family, her tissue was given to researchers while still alive without her consent. Doctors learned that her cells had the capacity to survive and reproduce and have been involved in many of the key discoveries in the medical field today, all without the approval of financial benefit to the family until recently.

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com.

“Everybody knows about Tuskegee. Everybody knows about Henrietta Lacks,” Joe Smyser, CEO of the health communications firm Public Good Projects, told the Center for Infectious Diseases and Research Policy News. “What I don’t often hear acknowledged is that the systemic racism that encouraged these two unethical, horrible incidents is still causing unethical, horrible incidents.”

Overcoming the Past in the Age of COVID-19

New Jersey health officials said that given how Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, it is important that those communities be given an equal chance to get vaccinated. That, though, given the past, along with current social and economic barriers, has been a challenge.

In late February, state health figures showed that Latinos and African American populations had mortality rates from COVID-19 nearly double that of Whites. Hispanic men had the highest mortality rate of any group at 432.8 per 100,000 population while Black males died at a rate of 381.5 per 100,000, while White men died at a rate of 168.7.

The statistics showed that Black women were dying at 224.1 per 100,000 and Hispanic women at a rate of 201.4.

“When you start to look at the data more closely, you can start the see the discrepancies,” said Amanda Medina-Forrester, executive director of the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health at the New Jersey Health Department, during a media telebriefing last month.

Amanda Medina-Forrester, of the NJ Department of Health. Photo courtesy of NJ Department of Health Twitter.

According to the latest state vaccination figures this week, 58% of those receiving the shots in New Jersey have been White, but only 6% of Latinos and 4% of Blacks. Medina-Forrester stressed in February, though, that there was a high number those receiving vaccines where race was not identified (13%). She said officials were trying to determine if people were not answering the race question or if sites were not asking it.

It’s Personal

Improving those vaccination numbers have become a personal mission for Dr. Chris Pernell, a public health official at University Hospital in Newark. Not only has she seen the disproportionate numbers of Blacks and Latinos suffering from the disease at the hospital, but she lost her father and two cousins to the virus.

Her sister, a cancer survivor, falls in the “long hauler”category of someone who has overcome the initial virus but continues to suffer through complications from it.

“I’ve been fully vaccinated,” Pernell told a webinar sponsored last month by Salvation and Social Justice. “I needed to demonstrate that accountability. I don’t want my people left in disproportionate risk without having the necessary tools to protect themselves. I support and affirm vaccination but more importantly, I understand the historical injustices and I’m here to help people along their decision journey.”

Pernell stressed that in order to assist African Americans and other people of color, those in power must purposefully work with locals to overcome such roadblocks like convenience, language, literacy barriers, and transportation barriers, as well as the natural hesitancy of dealing with the necessary science to reach the vaccination numbers needed to return to normal.

“We have to think through these social determinants and health framework of where you live, where you work, and where you pray,” Pernell said. “Those are the resources that have to be mobilized to help us achieve this more effective distribution of the vaccines and getting deeper into the communities.”

Filling the Gaps

Medina-Forrester said the state has been trying to fill gaps by working with local health departments, faith-based organizations, pharmacies and others along with potential “pop up” sites where the federal government will offer assistance.

Boyer said distrust among African Americans about the vaccine came as recently as this past presidential administration, but believes Blacks are starting to feel more and more at ease.

“The greatest amount of hesitancy, which was almost universal among most Black people who were not thoroughly informed, was distrust of the previous administration,” Boyer said of the Trump administration. “When you have an administration that was literally violent to Black life — and they are claiming they pushed this through at warp speed and these kind of things — it makes Black people very nervous, because your greatest spokesperson was one who was a threat to our lives.

“So understanding that dynamic, what has happened in the meantime, one with the new administration, which is a much more trusted source, has created a deeper comfort level. Working with trusted messengers and working deeply with Black health care professionals — doctors and scientists — to have these discussions with faith leaders and other influencers, I can tell you from anecdotal experiences and discussions with Black pastors and Black faith community leaders, that hesitancy is dropping more and more when more people know people who have gotten the vaccine,” Boyer said.

Conversations and Partnerships

Boyer said with those conversations — some one-on-one, some on neighborhood streets — are what’s needed to break the hesitancy and other social and economic barriers. The New Jersey Health Department said it is trying to break through those barriers as well.

“The State is committed to equitable vaccine access for previously underserved communities who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” New Jersey Health Department spokeswoman Donna Leusner told Front Runner New Jersey in an email this week. “New Jersey has launched a community-based partnership to provide equitable access of the COVID-19 vaccine to underserved communities throughout New Jersey.

“The program was expanded at the end of February to include a total of 10 cities which will vaccinate over 34,000 residents. The State has taken steps to reduce barriers for eligible residents to access the vaccine, such as not requiring documentation to demonstrating eligibility like a doctor’s note or proof of employment. Our COVID Call Center agents are bilingual and have the ability to communicate to callers in over 240 languages. Additionally, vaccination sites must be able to provide translation services,” she continued.

Leusner said the department is currently working on a vaccination plan for seasonal farm workers as well.

“Equitable access requires dedicated effort within and outside the vaccine clinic,” she said.

The department is coordinate with community-based organizations to share information about COVID-19 vaccines, eligibility, and registration, engaging with social services, faith-based organizations, etc., to bridge the digital divide and assist in pre-registering underserved populations.

They are also partnering with trusted community leaders to inform, dispel myths, and activate potential vaccine recipients and help New Jersey’s diverse consumers navigate PODs with on-site or telephonic interpretation services, ADA accessibility, and other supports.

The numbers suggest that the state and efforts by Salvation and Social Justice will be critical to protect New Jersey’s most vulnerable communities.

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