As the U.S. hit a grim milestone on Tuesday of 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, Black church leaders are joining the effort to convince African Americans, long skeptical of the medical establishment, to put their trust in vaccines to help bring the pandemic to an end.
“We are in a state of emergency. As Dr. King says, we are in the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ In all, there is hope. Hope that we can prevail,” Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of Choose Healthy Life, a nonprofit organization founded to address health disparities from COVID-19 for the African American community, told over 100 Black clergy leaders at an event held via livestream on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a co-chair of Choose Healthy Life, echoed that assessment. “It is a time where we are at a crossroads and our people are in peril. We must call on all sectors of society to take action,” he said.
Yet Sharpton and many other African Americans remain somewhat skeptical about the very thing that could halt the pandemic in its tracks: vaccines for COVID-19.
“I, myself, raised questions (about the vaccine’s safety at first) and now I feel more comfortable,” the Baptist minister and activist told City & State New York in a recent interview. “I’m not totally relaxed in bed yet but I’m sitting on the edge of the bed. I think that as we speak to credible experts from our community and we become more involved, we become more comfortable with it.”
The Rev. Calvin Butts III, senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y., and another co-chair of Choose Healthy Life, has partnered with SOMOS, a nonprofit that seeks to vaccinate underserved communities. The Harlem church received 500 doses of the vaccine last weekend for members of its congregation and its neighbors who are at least 65 years old or deemed essential workers.
“We’re on the path to meet the crisis of COVID-19 in the Black community, and so we press on. … We can and we will defeat COVID-19 in our communities,” Butts said at Monday’s event.
But even with public health experts and church leaders pushing the vaccination campaign, the long history of mistrust in the public health system among Black Americans is difficult to overcome. For decades, African Americans were misled and misused by the federal government for experimentation and research purposes, a fact that has been seared in the minds of many in the community.
The Tuskegee experiment — a clinical study conducted in Alabama by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 — is one painful example that has sown mistrust of vaccines among many in Black America. In that case, the Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute initially recruited 399 men with late latent syphilis and 201 men without syphilis and told them they were receiving free health care. The study’s purpose was to observe the natural progress of untreated syphilis in African American men who lived in rural areas. As the study evolved, more participants were added. When funding was cut, the experiment was continued without telling the participants they would never receive treatment. Even when penicillin became a standard treatment in 1947, scientists withheld treatment. As a result, dozens of men died from syphilis.
According to a Pew Research Center poll released in December, only 42 percent of Black Americans said they would probably or definitely get a COVID-19 vaccine. A January study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 3 percent of Black Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine so far, while white people are being vaccinated at significantly higher rates — in many cases two to three times higher.
But the distrust among some Black Americans about vaccines is also part of a larger issue.
“People from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by lack of access to quality health care, health insurance, and/or linguistically and culturally responsive health care,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. “Inequities in treatment may result in distrust of government and healthcare systems. Such barriers increase risks for poor health and health outcomes by limiting health promotion, disease and injury prevention, and condition management activities.”
Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes, a pastor at the Double Love Experience in New York City, told Yahoo News that the government needs to do more to address historical health disparities for people of color.
“In the time of a pandemic and the ways in which this nation has so often used Black bodies as guinea pigs, I would like to see America really ensuring that Black and brown folks who are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are the ones that are given what is necessary to bring them back to full health,” Cudjoe-Wilkes said.
Confirming Cudjoe-Wilkes’s point, CDC data reveals that Black Americans are 3.7 times as likely as whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 2.8 times as likely to die — startling statistics that mark the urgency of the public health crisis and the disproportionate toll the infection is taking on the Black community.
Shoni Taylor, a frontline health care worker at a Los Angeles hospital who has been vaccinated, said she was hesitant about it at first. “I was like, ‘I don’t want them to give me the Black version of the vaccine,’ as crazy as that sounds. There is an underlying mistrust of the government and ‘Are they doing this to try and hurt us?’”
To help assure people about the safety of the vaccines, ministers turned social activists, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the newly elected senator from Georgia and a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, spoke at Monday’s Choose Healthy Life event about the underlying health conditions that have contributed to higher mortality rates from COVID-19 among African Americans.
“These comorbidities that we’ve been dealing with — hypertension, diabetes, stroke — all of these things exacerbate the impact of COVID-19 in communities of color, so we are dying, more likely to die, die more often,” Warnock said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, also spoke at the event.
“We need to get the overwhelming proportion of our population, 70-85 percent at least, vaccinated, and that’s the reason why we’re out there making sure that, particularly, those that are most vulnerable, such as in African American and Latinx population, [are vaccinated],” Fauci said.
On Thursday, speaking at the White House, Fauci again emphasized the importance of buy-in from the African American community.
“One of the things we need to pay attention to ... is outreach, particularly to minority communities to make sure that you get them to be vaccinated and you explain why it’s so important for themselves, their family and their community,” he said.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of President Biden’s COVID-19 health equity task force, told clergy leaders at Monday’s event that the new administration is committed to a national vaccination strategy to address this.
“We must also work to increase vaccine confidence,” Nunez-Smith said. “Already Black Americans are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans. Access issues and mistrust are leaving Black health care workers behind. We are going to have to go deep, neighbors talking to neighbors, pastors talking to your church members, public health navigators and community-based organizations building on existing relationships.”
Nunez-Smith said Biden firmly believes Black people have not always been treated with the dignity and honesty they deserve by their federal government and the scientific community. She emphasized that the “work must be done” to build trust and added that the administration is committed to “transparency, honesty and centering on equity at every stage.”
Warnock also touched on a startling statistic in the pandemic that could directly expose many Black people to COVID-19 — one of the areas of social determinants that the CDC mentioned, occupation and job conditions. “We’re disproportionately represented among frontline workers. So this is ongoing work, but this is an important effort that moves us in the right direction.”
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