CORONAVIRUS

Hardest hit by COVID-19, communities of color among most hesitant to get vaccine

Distrust of government, historical racism main drivers

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen ready to be used as health care workers receive the first doses o
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen ready to be used as health care workers receive the first doses of the vaccine Dec. 14 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Though many are eager to get protection against COVID-19 from a vaccine program being rolled out across Iowa, there’s still work to be done in persuading hesitant Iowans to take the shot when available.

In particular, communities of color — which can have a more pronounced distrust in federal officials and the scientific community because of a history of traumatic experiences — are skeptical of the new vaccines against the coronavirus, say officials from across the state.

Much of the hesitancy stems not just from systematic racism and historical trauma experienced by these populations, but also from a general distrust of federal leadership encouraging Americans to get the vaccine.

“When we asked people to tell us the reason (for the hesitancy), it went back to who you trust for messaging,” said Jacquie Easley McGhee, health chair of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway in Iowa, pivoting from front-line health care workers and long-term care facilities and moving to older adults, essential workers and others at risk for severe illness next month.

Experts say about 75 percent of the total population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity — providing indirect protection for those who don’t get the shot.

According to a December survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population still is reluctant to get a vaccine when it’s available to them — leaving experts worried about the country’s ability to reach herd immunity.

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“It’s important we acknowledge that (hesitancy). There is that fear, and that must be acknowledged,” said Elizabeth Faber with Iowa Immunizes, a state coalition focused on improving vaccination rates statewide.

Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, mostly because these groups make up the majority of front line workers and other essential workforces that have faced higher rates of exposure to the virus.

Because of that, it’s important these populations have equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, Faber said.

Among racial and ethnic groups, Black Americans — who also bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths — are the most hesitant to get a vaccine, according to the Kaiser poll. The poll found 35 percent of Black respondents said they definitely or probably would not get the shot.

Among Latino communities, only 34 percent trust that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and only 40 percent believe it will be effective, according to a report from UnidosUS, the NAACP and COVID Collaborative published in November.

Many Latino families, particularly those who are undocumented, don’t have a relationship with the medical community and don’t have a trusted source they can turn to with questions about the vaccine, said Monica Vallejo, parent educator with Young Parents Network and founder of the LULAC Cedar Rapids chapter.

State officials have announced that a resident’s legal status in this country will not prevent him or her from receiving a vaccine. However, Vallejo said outreach efforts to immigrant communities and information about how and where to get the vaccine needs to be distributed in their own language.

“Who’s going to give them that information?” Vallejo asked.

A main driver of this hesitancy among Black Americans is distrust in government entities, according to a recent poll of Black voters conducted by the NAACP. While individuals trust hospital officials and Black elected leaders, they have a large amount of distrust in former President Donald Trump and other federal leaders when it comes to relaying important information on the pandemic, the poll found.

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Systematic racism has led to an overall distrust of the health care system as well, the NAACP’s Easley McGhee said.

Distrust of federal officials also likely ties back to trauma experienced by Black families throughout U.S. history, said Easley McGhee, who also is director of health equity, community and diversity at MercyOne.

She pointed to events such as the Tuskegee Experiment, the infamous syphilis study conducted on Black men in Alabama in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service. Scientists offered no treatment to the men, who were unaware of their infection even as they were dying of it.

“So here we are in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, and my term for what has transpired is a Band-Aid that has ripped off an already long festering wound of this inequity,” said Easley McGhee.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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