As distribution of the new COVID-19 vaccine continues, some Illinois leaders are turning their attention to encouraging vaccine use, particularly among communities of color.
Dr. Wendi Wills El-Amin, a family physician and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, said the school plans to partner with the local NAACP chapter and some churches to do education and outreach about the COVID vaccine.
“There's an opportunity for us to educate the community even more… to make sure people have people that look like them, people that they trust that are telling them about the vaccine,” Wills El-Amin said.
Several national surveys show Black Americans are less likely to say they’ll get the vaccine than white Americans. For example, in a recent Pew Research Center study, just four in ten Black respondents said they’ll get the shot, compared to around six in ten white and Hispanic respondents and eight in ten Asian Americans.
In a recent appearance in Chicago, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that leaders in the Black and Latino communities must be public about their trust in the vaccine in order to get buy-in from the larger population.
Springfield’s NAACP Chapter last spring hosted a webinar on COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, in which Wills El-Amin and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton participated. The national NAACP hosted an online question and answer forum about the vaccine last month.
Teresa Haley, who heads the Springfield and state chapters of the NAACP, said similar webinars or virtual events could be useful in allowing people to ask tough questions of medical providers about vaccinations.
Haley said she personally is on the fence about the shot and won’t get inoculated early because of her severe allergies and asthma. She said she’s heard different opinions from her family members – some saying they intend on getting vaccinated while others say they don’t trust the vaccine.
Haley said the Black community has reason to be distrustful, citing the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which around 600 Black sharecroppers were enrolled in a study of syphilis’ long-term effects on the body beginning in the 1930s. Those who were sick were not offered treatment when it became available.
“History will repeat itself if we don’t take a stand,” Haley said.
Haley’s 83-year-old father recently died after contracting COVID-19 in a long-term care facility in Springfield. Haley said his nickname – James “Rock” Haley – was fitting as he was strong as a rock. She said her family had agreed her father should get the shot if he recovered, given his fragile health.
Haley said getting the vaccine is an individual decision people need to make in consultation with their medical providers. She said she won’t push people either way, but wanted to make sure they have the information needed to make a decision.
One survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about half of Black respondents who say they won’t get the vaccine don’t trust vaccines in general or think the vaccine would give them COVID-19.
The vaccine does not contain a live virus, and therefore cannot cause the disease. However, some experience mild side effects, such as headaches, chills and fever.
There are similar concerns among those who refuse the flu vaccine, said Dr. Kenzie Cameron, a research professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She specializes in health communication and has studied attitudes and effective messaging encouraging flu and pneumococcal vaccines.
Cameron said similar racial disparities exist in the adoption of flu and pneumococcal vaccines. In the 2018-2019 flu season, for example, 39% of Black adults got the flu shot, compared to 49% of white adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That resistance, she said, is not surprising given mistrust in medical institutions.
“It's not just about Tuskegee,” Cameron said. “It's study after study that has shown racial and ethnic disparities in terms of receiving health care. And so the lack of trust is a very rational lack of trust.”
Public health officials need to be thinking about building that trust now to ensure people will get the coronavirus vaccine when it’s available to the wider public, especially in communities of color where the virus has been particularly deadly. And they need to figure out what specific concerns or misinformation is out there so that they can effectively address them.
“We're going to need multiple messages for multiple groups,” Cameron said, and messages could change as the pandemic continues on. “There isn't one message that's going to be a magic bullet. There never is.”
In a recent CDC presentation about the vaccines, the agency made suggestions on encouraging adoption, including engaging social workers, faith leaders, and other trusted sources and developing culturally and linguistically appropriate messaging.
SIU School of Medicine’s Wills El-Amin said health care providers getting the shot first could garner more trust in the vaccine.
“Because they'll be able to see that Dr. Wendi got the vaccine, and she's still doing okay,” she said. “So I think that that's going to be part of our role as well as we're rolling out the vaccine.”
Still, Cameron said a competing challenge will be to ensure equitable distribution of the shots, making sure the vials arrive in places where more people are suffering from or at risk of contracting the virus.