TASKEGI, Alabama. – By the time the coronavirus vaccines were introduced late last year, the pandemic has gripped two close friends of Lusenia Williams Dunn. However, Dunn, the former mayor of Tuskegee, has been pondering for months whether to get him vaccinated.
It was a complex consideration, driven by the government’s failed response to the pandemic, the disproportionate harm to black communities, and the infamous 40-year government experiment that her hometown is often associated with.
“I thought about the vaccine almost every day,” said 78-year-old Dunn, who finally walked into the pharmacy this summer and rolled up her injection sleeve after weighing in with her family and doctor about the potential consequences of not being vaccinated.
“People need to understand that some doubts are rooted in a horrible story, and for some it is really a process of asking the right questions to get to the vaccination site.”
In the first months after the introduction of the vaccine, black Americans were significantly less likely to get vaccinated than whites. In addition to the difficulty of getting vaccinated in their communities, their hesitation was caused by a powerful combination of general mistrust of government and healthcare facilities and misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
But a spate of vaccination campaigns and a spike in hospitalizations and virus deaths this summer, mostly among the unvaccinated and caused by the highly infectious delta variant, have narrowed the gap, experts say. The same can be said for the full approval of the vaccine and new employer mandates by the FDA. Persistent resistance to vaccines in some white communities may have contributed to the reduction of inequality as well.
While gaps remain in some regions, by the end of September, roughly equal proportions of black, white, and Hispanic adults — 70% of black adults, 71% of white adults, and 73% of Hispanic adults — received at least one dose of vaccine. A Pew study in late August found similar patterns. Federal data show a larger racial gap, but this data lacks demographic information for many vaccine recipients.
Since May, when vaccines were widely available to most adults across the country, monthly Kaiser polls have shown a steady improvement in vaccination rates among black Americans.
How the race divide has been narrowed – after months of disappointing turnout and limited access – is testament to decisions made in many states to send familiar faces to knock on doors and dispel myths about vaccine efficacy, Internet access to schedule appointments. and offer transportation to vaccination sites.
In North Carolina, where vaccine providers must collect data on race and ethnicity, hospital systems and community groups have conducted door-to-door walks and pop-up clinics in a theme park, bus station, and churches. In the summer, the proportion of African Americans in the vaccinated population began to more accurately reflect the proportion of African Americans in the general population.
In Mississippi, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country and has launched a similar effort, 38% of people who begin the vaccination process are black, roughly equal to the proportion of blacks in the Mississippi population.
And in Alabama, public awareness campaigns and travel to vaccination sites helped change dismal vaccination rates. A shopkeeper and county commissioner in Panola, a tiny rural town near the Mississippi border, has spearheaded efforts to vaccinate nearly all blacks in its majority.
Today, about 40% of Black Alabama residents – up from 28% at the end of April – have received at least one dose, a feat in a state ranked among the lowest in overall vaccination rates and the highest in COVID deaths per capita. 19. About 39% of whites in the state received a single dose, up from 31% at the end of April.
Health officials and community leaders say those who remain unvaccinated have highlighted concerns about how quickly vaccines were developed and what their long-term health implications might be, as well as misinformation, such as whether they contain tracking devices or change DNA of people. The damage done by the government-backed Tuskegee trials, in which black families were fooled by health professionals, also continues to play a role in some communities, helping to explain why some African Americans are still holding on.
“It’s not so much about saying, ‘This racial ethnic group is more hesitant, no longer willing to get vaccinated,’ but more about saying, ‘You know, this group of people in this area or this community has no information or access … they need to overcome their indecision, ”said Nelson Dunlap, chief of staff at the Satcher Institute for Health Leadership at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
When the US Public Health Service began what it called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Men, 600 black men – 399 with syphilis and 201 without the disease – said they would receive treatment for so-called bad blood in exchange. for free medical examinations, meals and funeral insurance. In fact, the treatment was suspended. Even after penicillin was found to be an effective treatment, most of them did not receive an antibiotic.
The experiment began in 1932 and did not stop until 1972, and only after it was covered in a news article. The surviving men and heirs of the deceased were later awarded a settlement totaling about $ 10 million, and the exposure of the study itself ultimately led to reforms in medical research. However, the damage was done.
“Few families have escaped the study. Everyone here knows someone who participated in the study, ”said 64-year-old Omar Neal, a radio show host and former mayor of Tuskegee, who has three relatives in the study who were hesitant about the vaccine before finally getting the vaccine. , his opinion has changed due to the growing number of deaths. “And betrayal – because that was what the study was – often occurs when people question something related to distrust of medicine or science.”
Ruben K. Warren, director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health at Tuskegee University, said the study is a real example of a long line of medical exploitation and neglect that black Americans face, eroding trust in government and healthcare. systems.
“The questions asked about the vaccine must be understood in the broader context of historical inequities in health care,” Warren said. “I hope, of course, that they finally decide to make a vaccine.”
A national campaign led by the Advertising Council and the COVID Collaborative Coalition of Experts has addressed this issue. A short documentary was added to the campaign this summer about the descendants of the men who participated in Tuskegee’s research.
When Deborah Riley Draper, who produced the short documentary, interviewed the descendants of Tuskegee’s research, she was amazed at how shrouded it was in myths and misconceptions, such as the false claim that the government had injected syphilis in men.
“The message from descendants was clear that African Americans are as much a part of public health as any other group and we need to fight for access and information,” she said.
In Macon County, Alabama, which has a population of about 18,000 and is home to many of the descendants of the Tuskegee trials, about 45% of blacks received at least one dose of the vaccine. Community leaders, including those on the weekly working group, explain the statistics, in part, by local awareness campaigns and numerous talks about the difference between Tuskegee’s study and coronavirus vaccines.
For months, 53-year-old Martin Daniel and his wife, 49-year-old Trina Daniel, have resisted vaccines, their insecurity partly explained the study. Their nephew Cornelius Daniel, a dentist in Hampton, Georgia, said he grew up hearing about the research from his uncle and saw in his own family how a long-standing deception instilled generations of mistrust in healthcare.
Cornelius Daniel, 31, said he overcame his hesitations in the spring because the risks of mouthwork outweighed his concerns.
His uncle and aunt revisited their doubts more slowly, but in the summer, when the delta option led to a sharp increase in hospitalizations in the South, the Daniels scheduled vaccinations for mid-July. However, before the due date, they and two of their teenage children tested positive for the coronavirus.
On July 6, the couple, inseparable since they met on the Savannah State University campus, died six hours apart. Their children are now being raised by Cornelius Daniel and his 32-year-old wife Melanie Daniel.
“We truly believe the vaccine would have saved their lives,” said Melanie Daniel.