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Felicia Howard, a pulmonology patient care technician/unit secretary, is greeted by Michael Burnett, Piedmont Athens Regional CEO, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenziephotography.com)

Despite being hospitalized and killed at a disproportionately higher rate by the coronavirus, according to an analysis by Kaiser Health News, Black Americans are getting COVID-19 vaccines at a much lower rate than white Americans.

COVID-19 hospitalization rates for Black Americans are 2.9 times higher than white Americans, according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information, and mortality rates are 1.9 times higher. A legacy of unethical medical procedures performed on the Black community, however, has resulted in significant parts of this demographic developing a rigid mistrust of the medical profession.

A study of 12 U.S. states done by KHN showed the majority of these states had less than half the rate of Black Americans getting vaccinated compared to white Americans.

According to the DPH, about 295,900 vaccinations have been administered to Black people in Georgia compared to the about 947,200 administered to white people.

Athens-Clarke County is currently lacking data on race and ethnicity of people that have gotten vaccinated.

The FDA, CDC and NIH are continuing efforts to make vaccinations available to more diverse peoples rapidly as possible. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that by the end of May, the U.S. will have enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for every adult American, significantly shortening his timetable while recognizing that the nation must remain vigilant against the virus.

Mistrust and access issues rooted in institutional racism are major factors leaving Black health care workers behind in the effort to vaccinate the country. This mistrust stems from generations of mistreatment such as the Tuskegee Syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks’ experience, which are now recognized as inhumane and racist scientific studies.

Vaccine skepticism was higher among Black Americans, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in December 2020, in which only 42% said they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for COVID-19.

History of mistrust

“I don’t think Black Americans are getting vaccinated less due to availability, in fact, I think it is fear. I feel as though Black Americans are skeptical and unsure about the vaccinations,” said Armani Kardar, the UGA NAACP’s public relations chair. “And I think a lot of it comes from historical factors in Black history, and then this fear is mongering across social media throughout the Black community and the distrust for health care systems and the government.”

Kardar mentioned the Tuskegee Syphilis study as being the forefront of the fear arising towards vaccinations.

In the Tuskegee experiment, which began in the early 1930s, doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 600 poor Black sharecroppers in Alabama by promising them free medical care. The study's aim was to track the natural history of syphilis, but the 600 participants were never told about their illnesses and were instead cared for "bad blood."

“In order to combat this issue, the Black community needs transparency and easily obtainable information to digest. Another thing is that identity policy needs [to] be thrown out of the window. Just because the media shows a famous Black NBA player getting the vaccination, such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, it doesn’t mean it will convince other Black people to get it also,” Kardar said.

Kardar shared his concern that the lack of Black health care workers perpetuates fears of going to the doctor for checkups. A study done by the Association of Medical Colleges showed only about 5% of all physicians in the U.S. are Black.

“We need to make easily readable information available through certain avenues such as Black-owned media and more prominent Black health care workers,” Kardar said

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 17 states have officially available race and ethnicity statistics on who is being vaccinated as of mid-January, with several states cautioning that the data is incomplete. Other states are gathering the data as well, but have refused to report it due to similar accuracy concerns. According to the CDC, 47% of vaccine data were lacking race and ethnicity records, a flaw that public health advocates believe needs to be addressed.

According to school polls, families of color are less likely to choose to return right away. According to a study conducted by Seattle Public Schools in January, 46.8% of families with children in preschool through first grade favored in-person instruction. About half of white families said they wanted to return, but just a third of Black, Asian and Pacific Islander families said they wanted to go back. This lack of interest in in-person learning has also been accredited to mistrust of the school system.

Athens hospitals speak out

Black Americans have traditionally been nearly 10% less likely to receive the seasonal flu and HPV vaccine than white Americans, according to the CDC. A remarkably high number of health care practitioners and frontline staff around the nation in early February reported being unwilling to receive coronavirus vaccination or specifically denied.

“It starts with acknowledging the history of racial injustice in the American health care system and confronting the injustice that remains. We must also create new and stronger partnerships with other organizations and governmental entities to address underlying social and economic challenges,” said Mark Ralston, public relations manager at St. Mary’s Hospital, when asked about what health care facilities can do to combat this distrust amongst the Black community.

This lack of uptake on getting vaccinated among many Black health care workers is causing some of the Black community to hesitate in getting vaccinated.

“Specific to the COVID vaccines, many Black people are concerned that the development process was rushed, which is also a common fear among white people. But Black people are also concerned that the vaccines were not adequately tested on people of color,” Ralston said.

The lack of diversity among the COVID-19 vaccination clinical trials have been a big concern throughout the Black community. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a foundation that provides information on current health issues, said on its website since medications and vaccinations will impact patients differently based on their underlying backgrounds and environmental exposure, having a diverse racial and ethnic presence in COVID-19 vaccine trials is crucial.

“The fact is that more Black people need to participate in these clinical trials. For example, if there is a clinical trial that doesn’t include you and the treatment goes out into the market and you state that it doesn’t work for you … well, where were you during the trial? We need more education in recruiting diversity for these trials,” said Dr. William Watkins, chief medical officer at Piedmont Henry Hospital.

The Food and Drug Administration is working on a number of programs to promote greater diversity in clinical trials, including establishing a public-facing education and outreach program and partnering with a variety of people. It has made proposals to industry and government authorities about how to gather race and ethnicity data in clinical trials, such as having participants self report their ethnicities and races.

“I believe the reasons why Black Americans are getting vaccinated at a lesser rate are multifactorial. The mistrust of the vaccinations need to be combated by education,” Watkins said. “The Black community cannot be shackled by their history. We know more now than ever before. Black Americans are getting the same vaccination as everyone else.”

Accessibility to vaccinations

A study done by the Associated Press in May 2020 showed that 40% of African Americans would refuse to take the vaccination if they were to be provided with one, and another 32% were not sure if they would take the vaccination.

According to the CDC, Black Americans are almost twice as likely as white people to die from COVID-19. Hispanic and Native American people are almost 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 in comparison to whites. Non-Hispanic Black and Asian health care employees are also more likely than white workers to contract COVID and die from it. Access to vaccinations is also another cause of Black Americans getting vaccinated at a lesser rate than white Americans.

Ralston also shared how many social determinants of health pose challenges for Black Americans for getting vaccinated such as living in underserved neighborhoods, transportation to distant vaccination sites, childcare and whether clinic hours align with shifts at work or duties parenting children who are attending school remotely.

“There are a lot of myths that need to be dispelled, but the only way we can reach out is to meet people where they are and try to inform them. That’s the way we can try to persuade folks to take vaccines in order to keep themselves and the people around them safe,” Watkins said.

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