February 18, 2021
Many news outlets and polls report that people of color are hesitant to accept COVID-19 vaccination. While there is some truth to this assertion, simply stating this does little more than cast blame on people of color for this mistrust, rather than addressing its root. How do we address vaccine hesitancy and medical mistrust? In my opinion, by acknowledging that it is well founded and by doing the work to build confidence and trust through positive experiences.
Acknowledging That Mistrust and Hesitancy Are Well Founded
Black people and other people of color have endured injustice, indifference and neglect in medical care both in history and in the present. With the disproportionate health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued overexposure and under protection that Black people have experienced throughout this pandemic, many people of color may feel between a rock and a hard place. It is important to do what we can to prevent infection and the spread of COVID-19. Now that an effective vaccine is available, we have to gather information, gain access and move forward, ideally putting this pandemic behind us.
Building Confidence and Trust
Black people as a collective, have a complicated relationship to the medical community. While the medical establishment is meant to be a place of healing, it has not always been that for people of color, both in the past and in the present time. The continuing presence of health disparities are evidence of just that.
Medical care is needed by all people, whether they trust the medical establishment or not. When one is sick and vulnerable, or in need of health information or healthcare, the added burden of finding trusted sources and caregivers can be overwhelming. It is important that people have trusted sources of information.
As with any relationship, trust is built over time. Through positive experiences, mistrust can be overcome, just as with any relationship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on us all, but people of color may need their health-care providers to take some extra time, address questions and concerns, make an extra effort to show concern and advocate for them. Health systems can work to build confidence and trust by acknowledging the disproportionate tolls COVID has had on communities of color and allocating resources (testing, information and vaccination) to combat that disproportionate effect.
A Collective Awakening on Systemic Racism
Our lives have been touched by COVID in one way or another. At the same time, there has been a collective awakening to the fact that systemic racism continues to oppress people of color. The names of murdered Black people now roll off the tongues of company CEOs. Now is the time to make good on the statements that were made in 2020 to root out systemic racism, to dismantle it. The medical community embraced the battle cry “white coats for Black lives.” Now what?
A Personal Perspective
The experience of living through a pandemic has highlighted my own intersectionality, as I navigate the world as a Black woman, as a wife, mother and as a physician. When I discuss health disparities and disproportionate impacts, I am not speaking theoretically. I am speaking of my own experience, that of my family and that of my friends.
In addition to my work as a physician, I am also the founder of Patients R Waiting, a nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate health disparities by increasing diversity in medicine. I help students become doctors.
But people are dying today. I hope that the medical community will make advances in health equity. In the meantime, we must press on, get informed and get vaccinated. Protecting ourselves from this deadly pandemic is imperative. The future is only brighter if we make it through this to see it.
Myth: "The vaccine is not safe."
Fact: The trials to determine safety and efficacy were conducted with over 40,000 people in order to get emergency use authorization and the available vaccines passed with flying colors. At this point over 12 million people in the US have received full vaccination.
Myth: "I'm young and don't need to get the vaccine."
Fact: Young people are dying of COVID, although older people make up a larger proportion of COVID 19 deaths, young healthy people are not immune to COVID 19.
Myth: "I already had COVID-19 so don't need a vaccine."
Fact: With varying severity of disease, there is also varying immune response. The immune response after vaccination may be stronger than the immune response to actual infection, especially if infection is mild.