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Why distrust for COVID-19 vaccines may be higher in African American communities

Posted at 12:34 PM, Jan 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-01 15:40:31-05

DENVER, Colo. — Every morning, Jeff Fard looks at his children with hope. This feeling of care and encouragement is one he’s known for years. Fard started the Brother Jeff Cultural Center 27 years ago as a safe place, a place for hope, for young African Americans in his community.

“The entire idea around the cultural center was to deal with health and health disparities in the Black community,” said Fard. “We consider gun violence, and youth violence and all of the things that are happening in the community as part of health and health disparities,” he said.

Now, much of his work centers around the current health crisis, one disproportionately infecting communities of color.

“We know the devastation of COVID-19 and we know it personally,” Fard said.

With the new year comes new opportunity. Vaccines for COVID-19 are becoming more widely available, but Fard worries his community members won’t consider getting one.

“I believe that the vaccination will be effective and I also believe that a lot of folks will be losing their lives because of distrust,” Fard said.

The distrust among communities of color is rooted in history. Centuries ago, slaves were used in medical experiments.

Then came the Tuskegee Experiment in the 1930s when researchers did not treat African American men with syphilis in order to study the full effects of the disease, countless men died when life-saving treatments were available.

“But that's not an isolated incident. It's just one of many,” said Fard.

Even today, Fard believes treatment of African Americans in the U.S. is making it harder for families to want to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“These injections also are in the wake of, say for example, this ketamine conversation as it relates to the death of Elijah McClain. Our community is working to figure out why people are shooting things into us and for what reason, and so, current instances create that divide,” said Fard.

The years-long divide also contributes to a lack of medical treatment for African Americans nationwide.

“We see our community showing up at the end stages of every disease, from breast cancer on down, or anything,” said Fard. “We present at the time where, if we would have done some things earlier, perhaps our lives would have been saved, and so this is the dilemma with the vaccination.”

This father said he’s working to overcome his own hesitations.

“I'm not an ‘anti-vaxxer,’ and I’m not a ‘pro-vaxxer.’ I'm just a person who says, ‘I want to know more information about this,’” said Fard.

He doesn’t want to wait until his life hangs in the balance, but doesn’t feel comfortable with the vaccines just yet.

“We don't want to be the first in line, but we definitely don't want to be the last in line,” he said,

As he learns more, he is encouraging his community to do the same.

“My advice is to proceed with caution, but don't turn a blind eye or blind ear in terms of ignoring the advances and lifesaving measures that everyone may be getting involved in,” said Fard.

Many African American leaders in the health care profession have that same advice.

A group of Black doctors and nurses came together to for the Black Coalition against COVID-19. The coalition wrote a "Love Letter to Black America," encouraging the Black community to consider getting vaccinated.

“We as African American professionals, we need to be the voice out there for our population,” said Martha Dawson, President of the National Black Nursing Association.

She hopes giving resources and information will help. The Black Coalition Against COVID-19 partnered with four historically Black colleges and universities to make sure testing, information and resources to help under served, minority communities were available.

Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta is one of those schools. The school is offering testing, food, information and health resources to members of the surrounding communities in Atlanta who don't have access to quality care.

Corey Coleman, Vice President for Community and Strategic Partnership at United Health Group, is making sure testing is available as long as this pandemic continues, especially in communities of color.

"One of the reasons we’re focusing on these communities is we know they're being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Coleman.

He said testing is the first step and vaccine acceptance will follow. He knows this process will not happen overnight, but he hopes the presence in communities in need across the country will help build trust, especially after the health care missteps with the Black community in the past.

"We have to be honest as leaders, we have to be honest as health care professionals, that this happened, it was wrong, and we have to do everything we can to earn the trust back so we can better help these communities," he said.

Dr. Lilly Immergluck is a professor of microbiology, biochemistry and immunology at the Morehouse School of Medicine and is the principal investigator in Morehouse's Novavax vaccine trial. She said the distrust around the vaccine is of high concern to her not just for the Black community but for all communities of color.

"We have to understand why there’s distrust and listen to the communities who have that distrust," she said.

The school has committed to being inclusive during their vaccine trials to ensure communities from all backgrounds feel comfortable taking the vaccine.

"We’re a trusted source," said Immergluck of the Morehouse School of Medicine's place as a resource in the community. "So, it's our job to make sure we have the right information, we want to see the other side of this pandemic."

With the efforts of historically Black colleges and universities, along with African American medical professionals encouraging the community to engage in conversation about vaccine acceptance, the vast distrust is beginning to slowly erode.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of people who are saying ‘yes’ they will take the vaccine or they may take the vaccine, so we definitely are beginning to turn the curve with this,” said Dawson.

“I'm optimistic,” said Fard. “I believe that the science will win. What will happen is the building of trust along the way.”

These community leaders say they’ll fight every day to rebuild the trust that has been lost.

“If you are concerned about the speed of the vaccine, just stand back take a look at the number of people who’ve died. We don't have the luxury to wait eight, seven years to do this,” said Dawson.

“In the long run, if the vaccinations are effective, our community will participate in one way or another,” said Fard. “I'm hoping the way we choose to participate is by choosing a life-saving vaccination.”