Health experts say COVID-19 vaccinators must address ‘trust gap’ in minority communities
South suburban health care professionals and advocates are welcoming word that COVID-19 vaccines could be available for public use by the end of the year, but they worry many in communities of color won't take a vaccine when one is available.
"We are still learning about this virus, and many people are afraid, not very trusting and not willing to take (a) vaccine at this point especially people of color," said Tonya Roberson, who has conducted research on health disparities.
Roberson is director of community engagement, program development and academic support at University Park-based Governors State University and adjunct faculty in GSU's College of Health and Human Services.
"My concern level is high, very high that they will not take it," she said.
Moderna Inc. announced Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing the virus, according to early clinical trial data. That came on the heels of news last week that early data from a Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE COVID-19 vaccine trial showed it was more than 90% effective in preventing the virus.
But a September survey by Pew Research Center found that only 32% of Black adults and 56% of Hispanics said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available, even as Blacks and Latinos are contracting the virus and dying from it at drastically higher rates than whites.
"I'm not surprised," said Dr. Jaime Baylock regarding the survey data.
Baylock is a part of Flossmoor-based Primary Healthcare Associates. As a nephrologist, she treats patients with kidney disorders and other illnesses. Most of her patients are African American, have high blood pressure, obesity and many of them are smokers, which puts them at greater risk of poor outcomes if they contract COVID-19. She briefly treated me last year while I was hospitalized after suffering arm muscle damage that temporarily put my kidneys at risk.
"We have a long history of mistrust among people of color with the medical community for various reasons," she said. "That lack of trust goes all the way back to the Tuskegee experiment where African Americans were withheld proper treatment for syphilis from the government for experimental purposes all the way up to today where mortality rates among Black mothers are higher than that of other races when giving birth."
Roberson shared similar views.
"History is now returning to haunt the U.S. medical establishment," she said. "They must take the trust gap seriously as a problem to be addressed."
Other factors causing skepticism include the politicization of the virus and the speed at which vaccines are being developed, Roberson and Baylock said.
It usually takes years, and the fact that vaccines are being "rushed to be developed in months may make some people hesitant to want to take a vaccine," said Baylock, who has privileges at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest and Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields.
People are concerned about being "used as guinea pigs," Roberson said.
Baylock's patients have mixed views on whether to take the vaccine.
"Some people are enthusiastic, but plenty are hesitant," Baylock said.
Even among her family, some are skeptical.
"They are asking me what I think about it and what they should do if and when a vaccine becomes available similar to what my patients are saying," Baylock shared.
When a vaccine is approved, Baylock said she will want to see information on whether the vaccine is safe for her particular patient population. But she is confident such information will be available. She said she is telling her patients and family that "in order for a vaccine to be approved, it has to be deemed safe and effective. We can be assured that both of those qualifications will be met in any vaccine that is put out for the public to take."
Baylock and Roberson said they will take a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available. To get minority communities to do so, having trusted leaders providing them with the facts will be crucial, they and others stressed.
"I think the more information we can get out, the more people know what's going on" the better, said U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust.
"We will do everything we can to pump information out and speak to as many people as possible."
It will be important for people to hear directly from the medical community and physicians they trust, said Baylock and Kelly.
"I use myself as an example," said Baylock. "My patients ask me all the time my opinion on vaccines and whether or not they should take them, and I tell them. My patients relate to me not only because I'm an African American woman, but we have things in common. When I say I'm doing it for myself and for my family as well, I think that encourages people to be able to trust the person they've entrusted their major medical problems with.
Baylock said educating people rather than just telling them what they need to do will help them become more informed decision-makers about their health care.
"I think when you involve people in the decision-making process and explain why, they are much more likely to go along with it," she said.
Time is of the essence, said Roberson. She advises communities of color "to find out as much about the vaccine as they can for themselves so they can make informed decisions, be proactive and an advocate for their own health."
Aunt Martha's Health & Wellness CEO and President Raul Garza says the federally qualified health center, which treats many Latino and Black patients, will incorporate multiple approaches to educating the public on the importance of communities of color taking a COVID-19 vaccine. Aunt Martha's has 23 clinics including sites serving patients in Chicago Heights, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Blue Island and South Holland.
The center provides testing for COVID-19 and has tested more than 14,000 people so far. The positivity rate among Hispanics who have been tested is a whopping 61%, and it's 16% among African Americans, Garza said.
Aunt Martha's "will be getting out there and really promoting why this is so important," he said, adding its education campaign will use social media, "and when (patients) come in for visits, we will have information for them to take home. We will have tailored information for every segment of the population.
Aunt Martha's call center will also provide information, and care coordinators will reach out to patients, he said.
"I think we will be effective in getting the word out," he said.
Federal regulatory approval of a COVID-19 vaccine is anticipated before the end of the year.
"This is critical to slowing down the mortality and the prevalence of this virus," said Baylock. "If a vaccine is going to dramatically slow that down, I'm all for it."