As the race to get people vaccinated against the coronavirus accelerates, U.S. health officials worry Black Americans are lagging behind whites in getting shots in their arms, continuing a long history of racial disparities in the nation's health care system.
Programs are being launched across the country, targeting African American communities in a drive to get people vaccinated. President Joe Biden's administration will begin distributing vaccines to federally funded clinics in underserved communities of color.
The aim is to achieve racial equity in America's most ambitious inoculation campaign ever attempted, and to crush the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately sickened and killed Blacks. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"This effort that focuses on allocation for community health centers really is about connecting with those hard-to-reach populations across the country," said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, head of the Biden administration's COVID-19 Equity Task Force.
Health experts acknowledge the need to do a better job collecting data on the race and ethnicity of those vaccinated. Nevertheless, some communities are not waiting for more data but taking action.
In Washington, D.C., vaccination sites are being established at Black churches. "Places of worship have the ability to speak directly to African Americans. Engaging them to get the shots and including them on our vaccine confidence effort was a natural fit," Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. health department, told VOA. At one church, officials said they can vaccinate 200 people in a worship hall that served as a COVID-19 testing site earlier this month.
Racial disparities in vaccine access
In Montgomery County, Maryland, 75% of residents who registered at the end of January for vaccination appointments were white. To better align with the county's demographics, officials designated high-impact neighborhoods. They are places where portions of the vaccine will be made available based on ethnicity, case and death rates.
"We are under-registering dramatically in minority communities that have been most severely impacted by this virus," said Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services.
A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests nationally only about 5.4% of vaccine recipients are African Americans, compared with more than 60% for whites. Blacks make up 13% percent of the U.S. population. The research also indicates African Americans are getting a smaller share of vaccinations relative to how many are becoming sick.
"COVID is killing Blacks at a rate of three times [higher] than it is killing other people," said Judith Watson, CEO of the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Centers in New York.
Analysts point to other vaccination barriers in underserved communities. They include lack of online computer access to make appointments, having to work long hours at essential jobs, and transportation issues. Health officials are trying to enlist more community-based organizations to help dispel misinformation about the vaccine.
The expanded programs come as vaccine skepticism remains high among African Americans.
"I think we have to find more ways of reaching out to African Americans and make it easy for them to get vaccinated," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who also serves as Biden's chief medical adviser on COVID-19. The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, in Bethesda, Maryland.
"At the same time, we need to address the understandable hesitancy that they might have about taking the vaccine," he said. In an effort to educate reluctant Blacks, Fauci noted that vaccine development was jump-started by an African American woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a research fellow and the scientific lead for coronavirus vaccines at the NIH.
History of mistrust
Historically, racism and disparate racial outcomes in the U.S. health care system run deep, highlighting discrimination many African Americans have endured.
In the 1930s, the U.S. government launched a notorious medical experiment to record the natural history of syphilis among Black Americans. The nearly 400 men with syphilis never received proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In the following decade, when penicillin became the drug used to treat syphilis, researchers did not offer it to Black patients. The 40-year study, conducted without the patients' consent, ended after the research became public, causing a national outcry in the early 1970s.
The government later agreed to pay $10 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the study participants and their families. The government also gave lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants, including wives, widows and offspring.
"The infamous Tuskegee incident, which gets passed down from generation to generation about not trusting the federal government's medical programs, has caused understandable vaccine hesitancy among African Americans," said Fauci in a nationally televised interview. "I think the way we get beyond that hesitancy is by explaining the safeguards that have been put in place since then which makes it virtually impossible for those types of violations to occur in today's world."
Civil rights leaders agree. "We need a vaccine education plan that helps people understand the pros and cons and the history of the Tuskegee Experiment," Marc Morial, president and CEO of advocacy group the National Urban League, told VOA. "We have to give people information so that they can make an intelligent decision about taking this vaccine."
Changing attitudes in Black community
A nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found 50% of African Americans wouldn't take the vaccine, even if it were determined to be safe and provided at no cost. By comparison, 2 in 3 white people said they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, as did 60% of Hispanics. The majority of Blacks who said they wouldn't take the vaccine did not think that it would be distributed fairly or developed with their needs in mind.
"We have a centurieslong legacy in this country of basically Black people, in particular, and other people of color as well, being treated poorly," said Dr. Lisa A. Cooper, an internist who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. "So why should Black people trust any institution? It has gone on for so long."
In Bronx section of New York City, members of a health initiative understand the mistrust and are going through neighborhoods knocking on doors to educate people and sign them up to get their shots.
"I think the vaccine is a wonderful opportunity for our community to have a fighting chance against the virus, especially with the variants taking over," said African American Joan Horton, adding that persuading her neighbors to get vaccinated is a must. "We need more of our people to get their shots."