A closer look at minority communities’ hesitancy with the COVID-19 vaccine

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There’s a sense of hesitancy among some minority communities when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine and the past plays a critical role. 

When Northwestern Medicine Pulmonary and Critical Care physician Dr Khalilah Gates rolled up her sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine, she said it was “with mixed emotions.”

“But the alternative, which is to get infected with COVID-19 and perhaps end up in the ICU I work in, it wasn’t a good alternative for me,” she said. “And so I decided to have the vaccine.”

And she is encouraging others to do the same.

But first, there’s history to face, particularly in Latinx and Black communities where distrust in medical research was born from past abuses.

“What we have to understand as we’re trying to figure out how to roll out the vaccines in these communities, we have to understand our history,” Gates said.

Like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. African American participants were not informed when an effective treatment – penicillin — became available.

“There are lots of legalities and regulatory rules in place now for clinical studies to try to prevent that,” Gates said. “But the reality is that it’s a history that still nags us and we have to accept that and work within that.”

It’s a mission that defines Veronica Robinson’s life’s work. Robinson is the great granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Lacks’s cervical cancer cells were used without her knowledge or consent to create what is now known as the HeLa Cell Line. Since that time, cells from the tobacco farmer and mother of five have been used in multiple research projects. 

“In order to make an informed decision you have to be educated on the issue at hand, right?” Robinson said. “So we’re out here. We’re educating people. We’re making sure they can make an informed decision about healthcare clinical trials treatment or therapies. …  What happened to my great grandmother it was definitely a tragedy, but it also was something that has allowed a bigger conversation and bigger conversation for people in communities, actually in black and brown community, where this is a mistrust in the medical industry.”

That conversation now includes current COVID-19 vaccine concerns among communities of color.

“A lot of people are asking questions and a lot of people would like to know what this vaccine may mean to them,” Robinson said. “And my family, we encourage for you to get out there and do your own research so you are able to make a more informed decision.”

For some, like Chicago resident Ricardo Rivera, it’s not the past but the process that causes concern.

“It rolled out really fast. Some in my family say they won’t take it until 2023. Some people say as soon as it comes up they will take it,” he said. “It’s divided. I say about 40-60 with 60 not taking it.”

COVID-19 positivity rates in LatinX and African American communities in Chicago are the highest — 25.5% and 12.1% respectively. And death rates among African Americans are double compared to those in white communities.

“t is just exposing the healthcare disparities in our healthcare system,” Gates said.

For now, Gates is doing her part to educate all citizens about the vaccine.

“If you’re not sure about taking this vaccine I get it. It’s a new vaccine. We don’t have the long-term data. I understand that,” she said. “But I also want to encourage us to review the data for ourselves. Let’s not rely on random memes and videos. But let’s really look at the data and educate ourselves and make very educated decisions about it. … And let’s keep talking about it. Lets keep getting our questions answered until we feel comfortable with it.”

Health experts say to end the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 70% of Americans must obtain the vaccine. A recent pew poll shows 61% of LatinX and 42% of African American participants indicated they would get the vaccine.

To learn more about Henrietta Lacks, visit https://hela100.org/.

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