While the success of COVID-19 vaccine programs allows more restrictions to be lifted, lagging vaccination rates among Black people and other minorities may leave those communities at greater risk.
Data analysis by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Black people have received just 5% of vaccines administered in Pennsylvania, where about 11% of the population is Black. Outside Philadelphia, the state Department of Health report on Saturday showed, 4.6% of those fully vaccinated identified as African American.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has faced criticism for not including plans to reach communities of color and non-English speaking citizens in its initial vaccine rollout.
As part of the state’s response, the health department provided a $1.8 million grant to Harrisburg-based Latino Connection to launch a mobile vaccine and education program working with community groups to set up vaccination clinics in convenient locations.
During an April press conference announcing the mobile clinics, Luz Colon, executive director of the administration’s Commission on Latino Affairs, acknowledged the disparities and pledged to bridge the gap.
“As we know, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our Latino and non-white communities,” Colon said. “Throughout the pandemic, we have witnessed disparities in health care for our low-income and diverse neighborhoods.”
Some local Black leaders say both lack of access and vaccine hesitancy have played roles in the disparity.
While the Rev. Sylvia King, Johnstown City Council member, believes Highlands Health free medical clinic and Richland Family Health Center have done “a fabulous job” getting vaccine into the community, she sees opportunities to reach vulnerable groups.
“There are other places it could happen,” King said at Christ Centered Community Church, 531 Somerset St. “It could happen in the churches, or even if your employer could offer the vaccine at work, it might make a difference.”
‘Distrust … misinformation’
Deacon Jeffrey Wilson, a longtime youth leader at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, 206 Peelor St., suggested bars, night clubs or small churches as vaccine clinic sites where members of the Black community would feel more comfortable.
“They could be more creative in locations,” Wilson said in a telephone interview.
Both Wilson and King said vaccine hesitancy among Black people may be the more challenging hurdle. They say providing accurate information about the vaccine through trusted sources may help reach more people.
“The distrust in the African American community has stemmed from misinformation, especially early in the pandemic,” King said.
But the nation’s history of health disparity also comes into play, the leaders say. Both pointed to the 1932-1972 U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, Alabama, in which Black men with syphilis were not offered curative treatment for the disease as part of a clinical study.
“They experimented on us,” Wilson said. “They used us as guinea pigs in terms of finding out the effects of syphilis.”
‘A lot of anxiety out there’
Dr. Michael Sleet, a trauma surgeon at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, said misunderstanding the science behind the vaccine and its development has also led to hesitancy among Black people and others.
“There are, maybe, layers of distrust,” Sleet said at the hospital. “The beginning of it, probably, is historical, and the next part of it has to do with the time that it took to develop the vaccine. It seemed it was very short. And then you have social media, which will, unfortunately, have a way of isolating the worst cases. You have a lot of anxiety out there.”
Sleet has gotten the Pfizer vaccine and says the messenger RNA technology behind it and the Moderna vaccine allows for rapid development and testing.
“I personally think they are designed very well,” Sleet said. “Because of their design, people are a little bit nervous about how quickly they were able to be produced. It’s just because the technology they use is completely different. The technology in and of itself has been in development for about 10 years.”
The vaccine uses a slightly modified artificial version of RNA based on a protein in the coronavirus spike to convince the body to make the protein. But the immune system recognizes it as foreign and produces antibodies to fight the virus.
“All you needed was the sequence to the RNA,” Sleet said. “Once you had the sequence, you could actually make the RNA.”
The simplified production, along with thousands of volunteers who were ready to participate in clinical trials, were the main factors behind the rapid production, he said.
Disparities in care, access
Sleet echoed King’s and Wilson’s observations that information is key, but must be shared in meaningful ways to reach minority communities. He acknowledged that the situation is complicated by the realities of health care access in those communities.
“Some have had bad medical care experiences and some have very little exposure to the health care system,” Sleet said. “What it ultimately comes down to is: There is access and there is also trust. People trust their physicians. If they don’t have a physician, they will trust someone in their community.”
He suggests those who received the vaccine openly share their experiences with friends and on social media and find opportunities to provide verified information about the vaccine.
King said health care access issues have plagued the Black community.
“I feel one of the major problems is health-care disparity – period,” she said. “There are too many people who don’t have a primary care doctor. The ER becomes their primary doctor. When that happens, you are not building a relationship and medical history with someone who knows you.
“This should make you want to get a primary care doctor. When the next thing happens, you will already be under the care of a physician. Whatever questions you have you can address to this person.”
‘All on a level playing field’
King is still recovering after being struck with COVID-19 in early January. She uses her experience to illustrate the differences between efforts to end this pandemic and the Tuskegee experiments or other medical injustices of the past.
“This is not an experiment,” King said. “We are all on a level playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your status is in life. This pandemic has affected everyone. The COVID I had was not anything different for me than it was for the lady in my (Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center) room, who was in her 80s and was a white woman.”
She added that more information should be shared about Black doctors and scientists who are leading vaccination efforts.
Sleet pointed to the work by Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, a Black virologist who had a lead role in developing the Moderna vaccine. She leads the Vaccine Research Center’s coronavirus team at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and was profiled as a rising star in a piece written by Dr. Anthony Fauci for Time magazine.
“Her work will have a substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than 100 years,” Fauci wrote.
Today there are also more controls, Sleet said, with boards of experts reviewing experiments at each stage and requiring informed consent of all participants.
“There are a lot more avenues for transparency,” he said.
King and Wilson encourage everyone to participate in efforts to fight COVID-19.
“We are all in this together,” King said. “The blinders have to come off.”
“I just pray that as many people get the shots as possible,” Wilson said. “It’s time for family reunions and cookouts. I pray that we can do that without having to wear a mask and can hug one another.”
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