For Black Americans, History Of Medical Mistreatment & Disparities Leaves Some Leery Of Vaccine

Dec 22, 2020

Many people are eager for their chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but there are those who don’t share that feeling — especially in communities of color.

Mike Hutchinson said he will be getting the vaccine when it’s widely available. He's already had COVID-19 and wants to prevent it from coming back.

"I definitely plan to get it if becomes readily available for me because I have two daughters and just because of the close contact I am with people," he said. 

But Hutchinson, who is Black, said he knows not everyone shares his opinion.

On social media, you can find people of color discussing whether they’ll get the COVID-19 vaccine. Many point to moments in history where Black people were mistreated in the American health care system.

Brooke Love, a mixed-race woman in Milwaukee, said she has concerns because of her underlying medical conditions.

History also plays a part in her concerns. She mentioned the Tuskegee study, which experimented on 600 Black men with syphilis for 40 years, beginning in 1932. Doctors lied to the men and left the disease untreated to test how syphilis developed in Black people compared to the white population.

"I also learned just recently about a gynecological experiment where this gynecologist, he was actually practicing on enslaved women of color and did different things to them even without anesthesia," she said.

But Love said if she sees that others who have the same medical conditions get the shot and do okay, she’d consider the vaccine.

Paige Westmoreland identifies as Black and Latino. She’s a student at UW-Milwaukee and she explained that she’s still on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine and she understands folks being hesitant.

"I know a lot of people are nervous because it was very, well, rushed. You know a lot of vaccines take years to develop and I see why people are, you know, coming back at that statement saying, 'well we, you know, we don't always have worldly pandemics where we need a rushed vaccine'," she said. 

Westmoreland said she’ll be paying attention to how the first round of recipients respond to treatment before she can give a definite answer.

There are a number of reasons Black people may be leery about the COVID-19 vaccine. Their concerns may be part of broader misgivings and may keep them from going to the doctor on a regular basis.

Some don’t feel that the medical field has their best interests in mind. That’s according to Dr. Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu, an associate professor in the College of Nursing at UWM. She said disparities in health outcomes contribute to the mistrust.

"African Americans are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health. You know, they're 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with end stage renal disease, you know. And then when we think about infant mortality — on every measure, you know, African Americans experience disparities," said Mkandawire-Valhmu.

Existing disparities exacerbated the impact of COVID-19, hitting Black and Latino communities harder than others early on.

According to Dr. Tito Izard, there were disparities in how public health officials responded to the threat of the coronavirus in communities of color. He is the president and CEO of Milwaukee Health Services. Izard calls the public health response “inadequate.”

"We should have seen a FEMA-like response initially. We failed to create a COVID-19 distribution center to be able to make sure that people had access to masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant agents and all of those things," said Izard. "Now it starts to impact on how people feel about government, and how they actually will feel about vaccinations."

These same disparities make Dr. Emilia Arana concerned for vaccine access. She’s director of pediatrics at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers.

"COVID has made all the inequalities even more evident, meaning that populations that were already facing poor access to health care, now, they have seen higher COVID numbers, higher hospitalizations rate, and unfortunately, a higher number of deaths. So, these populations that are at higher risk, deserve better attention regarding the distribution of the vaccine," said Arana. 

Dr. Arana said there are multiple steps that need to be taken in order to build trust between the medical system and communities of color. Part of it involves health professionals acknowledging how these groups have been wronged.

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