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Minorities Hit Hardest By COVID-19 Are Also Distrustful of the Vaccine

There’s no doubt that the novel coronavirus has drastically changed the way we live. Although only 18% of people said COVID-19 was a potential catalyst for moving to a new home, the ongoing pandemic has caused many of us to adjust to new work and learning environments, opportunities for social interaction, and precautions taken to preserve our health and safety. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), minorities — particularly those in the Black and Latinx communities — have been most adversely affected by the virus, thanks largely to systemic socioeconomic factors. Making matters worse, data shows that minorities are more likely to be skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, which means it could be much more difficult to achieve herd immunity in the United States — including here in Rochester.

The CDC already recommends that everyone over the age of six months old receive a seasonal influenza vaccination each year. And while some may think that flu vaccines aren’t as effective as they could be, initial trials found that the COVID-19 vaccines could actually provide better protection against the coronavirus than the flu vaccine does for influenza. The effectiveness came as a surprise even to medical professionals, and although newer strains of COVID-19 could certainly complicate matters, many experts are encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.

However, that won’t count for much if Americans aren’t willing to receive the vaccine. There’s been a plethora of misinformation and speculation surrounding the speed at which the vaccines were developed. Although it’s true that it can sometimes take decades to develop a safe and effective vaccine for an infectious disease, the COVID-19 vaccines were created and tested so quickly because they didn’t require the production of a protein or weakened pathogen. Essentially, developers didn’t have to start from scratch. In addition, the funding dedicated to COVID-19 vaccine development (along with recruitment for clinical trials) was a lot more expansive than you’d typically see with other vaccines.

Still, there’s a lot of public distrust surrounding the vaccines, particularly among minority communities. Despite the fact that COVID-19 deaths among Black Americans are nearly two times more than what would be expected based on their share of the population, Black communities are particularly distrustful of the coronavirus vaccine. Recent research published in Social Science and Medicine revealed that Black people — along with women and those who are politically conservative — are the most likely to refuse COVID-19 vaccination, with Black respondents being 41% less likely to receive the vaccine. These findings echo those published by Pew Research Center in November, which showed that 58% of Black adults were less inclined to be vaccinated.

These statistics are particularly troubling because, as University of Minnesota data shows, minorities are more vulnerable to more serious effects of COVID-19 due to a number of factors. Black and Hispanic Americans, along with Indigenous Americans, are far more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than whites are in at least 12 different states. And while it’s recommended that individuals update their estate plans at least once every five years, an illness like COVID-19 can often take us by surprise, resulting in serious and even life-threatening effects even among those with no underlying health conditions. Without widespread acceptance of the vaccine, these populations may continue to suffer horrible consequences and make it more difficult for herd immunity to become a reality.

This has found to be a challenge even here in Rochester. Data from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that the rates of infection in Monroe County are highest among the Black and Hispanic populations, with the hospitalization of Black individuals being four times more likely than that of white individuals. But because there’s so much public mistrust in the vaccine — some of which is rooted in racism — convincing Rochester residents to become inoculated may be an uphill climb.

According to research, Black survey respondents were most concerned about safety and efficacy, as well as a lack of health insurance and inability to pay for the vaccine. Although these concerns may become moot, as U.S. officials have stressed that the vaccine will be free and that any administration fees can be reimbursed, it does highlight a major problem with the disparities present in our nation’s healthcare system. And, as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported:

“The hesitancy is deeply rooted in a traumatic history that saw populations of color used as unwitting test subjects in medical research. Add in health disparities, and individual experiences stemming from those; questions about long-term effects; unease over how rapidly the vaccine was developed; a national conversation too often devoid of facts; and a rapidly evolving onslaught of information about the virus and vaccine — it all can become too much to find a level of comfort.”

While some members of the Black community here in Rochester have expressed that they would likely become vaccinated, many added that they’d choose to wait until later in the rollout process, citing concerns about how the vaccine might impact Black patients, in particular. But with the infection and death tolls continuing to rise nationwide, it’s clear that public education is a must. Last month, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello revealed plans to form a task force that would coordinate vaccine rollout with public education and community engagement, with an emphasis on providing answers to common questions and concerns surrounding the vaccine. Dr. Nana Duffy, the Associate Director for Diversity and Inclusion at Rochester Regional Health, explained to local news station WROC that public service announcements featuring minorities could also help to reach and convince residents who are skeptical of the vaccine.

On a national level, Dr. Fauci and other experts are working to shift their messaging to Black communities and other minorities. The nation’s leading infectious disease expert recently met (virtually, of course) with a group of clergy and politicians in Virginia to share more accurate information about COVID and the vaccine; the hope is that these members of the clergy and these politicians will then share this information with church-goers and constituents. Reverend Jesse Jackson and other high-profile members of the Black community have also agreed to be vaccinated in an effort to decrease hesitancy among minority groups.

But with all of the conspiracy theories and “fake news” continuing to swirl around, it’s likely that medical experts will continue to face a challenge when convincing minorities to become vaccinated. Then again, considering how slowly the current vaccine rollout is happening, this is far from the only barrier to widespread inoculation that exists.