Black doctors, community leaders working to build trust in COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 5:56 PM, Jan 09, 2021

CLEVELAND — More COVID vaccines will be available in the next few weeks and months for millions of Americans and Cleveland’s African American community is already preparing to build trust around getting vaccinated.

“Anyone who denies the fact that there are really valid reasons for the Black community to be skeptical of the medical industry when we talk about vaccines and delivery of other medical services is not being fair and honest about the history of mistreatment for Black people within the medical system,” said Cleveland NAACP President Danielle Sydnor.

History has given minority groups, specifically African Americans, plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Medical experiments on that population date back to colonial times but the Tuskegee Syphilis Study might be the most well-known.

"The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent," according to the CDC's website.

The study included 600 black men, including 399 who had syphilis but went untreated for 40 years without their consent to doctors could study the disease.

Oak Street Health Ohio Medical Director Dr. Laolu Fayanju said he often is pushing back on patients who are skeptical of modern medicine, like the COVID vaccine, because of what medical professionals did to Black people in the past.

“It would be a double tragedy if we did not make sure that these communities had good access to the vaccines that can save lives and prevent more death and tragedies,” said Fayanju.

That effort is especially important now because the coronavirus hit minority communities especially hard. The CDC reports that Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized with COVID and nearly three times more likely to die from the virus.

"Bad information spreads much more quickly than the truth and so we're really just trying to help combat the misinformation that's coming out and tie it back to our activist and organizer network to get information out about the vaccine," said Sydnor.

That’s why Sydnor said the Cleveland NAACP is already working with Black doctors to figure out how to best reach the Black community around Northeast Ohio and convince them to get the vaccine.

“Kids sell toys to kids, adults send messages to adults,” said Sydnor, explaining why it’s important for Black medical leaders to speak to the Black community.

To do more, Sydnor says statewide NAACP leaders are already talking to state government leaders about financial help to mobilize.

“Often times what is asked of us is to champion and do 75% of the work but it takes resources to do that adequately,” said Sydnor.

COVID-19 vaccine
FILE - This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Pfizer and BioNTech say they've won permission Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, for emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, the world’s first coronavirus shot that’s backed by rigorous science -- and a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

The early plan is to use the NAACP’s Get Out The Vote and Census infrastructure to reach the community.

“So we already have networks and strategies that we have employed for those types of efforts that we will now just change the message of what we are talking to the community about,” said Sydnor.

This movement comes as Americans across the nation have been having tough conversations about racial equity in all facets of life. Sydnor said there’s no reason conversations about healthcare equity shouldn’t be included in those broader discussions.

"We have to have trust in the science and the data that we have really supports the efficacy of these vaccines," said Dr. Fayanju. "I am impressed, I am trusting and hopeful in this vaccine."

“So long as we’re also thinking about the disparity that’s inherently built into the system, I think we have the opportunity to use these as a model of how we get better much more quickly rather than the incremental progress that we make when we’re unwilling to be honest about what some of these internal barriers are inside these systems,” said Sydnor.

“I think that will go a long way to start addressing, slowly but surely, some of the inequities and the injustices that we’ve seen in healthcare in the past,” said Fayanju, who plans to get his COVID vaccine as soon as possible. “It’s an opportunity for us to really try to change the course of how minority communities perceive healthcare institutions and healthcare providers.”

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