We must address black, brown mistrust of COVID-19 vaccine

Education, engagement, and assurances are the way to do it

MASSACHUSETTS IS IN DANGER of failing communities of color, once again, if we do not start preparing for a COVID-19 vaccine now. Black Americans, in particular, are both more susceptible to the complications of the virus and may be less trusting of the medical establishment responsible for producing a vaccine, due in part to historic abuse, neglect, and unequal treatment. We must work to restore our black citizens’ trust in the healthcare system and, even harder, to ensure that, when a COVID-19 vaccine is available, communities of color will be among the first to have access along with first responders and essential workers.

We already know that the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t affected everyone equally. The hardest-hit places in Massachusetts are where our black and brown residents live. Their cases are worsened by a higher prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma – conditions that increase their chances of dying from COVID-19 twelvefold. These health disparities are directly linked to structural racism, which hinders access to and equal treatment within our healthcare system for people of color.

A recent Pew Foundation poll found that whereas 74 percent of white and Latino respondents said they would definitely or probably take a COVID-19 vaccine, only 54 percent of black Americans said the same. The reason for this is obvious: black Americans have been victimized by the medical establishment for centuries. From being denied access to quality, affordable health care under Jim Crow to being identified as having “bad blood” during the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-1972) and beyond, many black Americans do not trust that our healthcare system has their best interests at heart.

We can seek to address this with a combination of education and engagement, as well as assurances that there is no greater risk posed to those early recipients of the vaccine, if true.

First, we should develop a statewide education and engagement campaign focused on communities of color to promote the safety, efficacy, and necessity of vaccines in protecting not only the indivdual but also the vulnerable people around them. An important component of these efforts will be identifying community leaders who can offer information, answer questions, and counter misinformation (via video conference for the foreseeable future) about the vaccine.

Second, we must ensure that the companies making COVID-19 vaccines are including people of color in their development efforts.  While we know enrolling people of color in vaccine trials is not easy, we also know that it is essential for restoring trust in the process, maximizing the medical efficacy of the treatment, and saving lives

Lastly, we can start planning for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine into communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The 52 community health centers across the Commonwealth are local, trusted health care providers where more than 1 million residents —  including many people of color — already receive primary and preventive care, including vaccinations. We can increase their reach by adding locations and working with ambulance companies to bring the vaccine into communities most affected by structural racism and COVID-19.

Meet the Author

Michael A Curry

Deputy CEO and general counsel, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers
Meet the Author

David R Martin

CEO, Massachusetts Health Council
The HIV-AIDS epidemic taught us something about treating disease outbreaks: sometimes when we think we have defeated a disease we find our success has been limited to white communities. As a result, black and brown communities get left behind. Our respective organizations are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Michael A. Curry is deputy CEO and general counsel of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and David R. Martin is CEO of the Massachusetts Health Council.