According to a December survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly 40 percent of Americans say they will definitely not or probably not get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.
This is a significant finding, yet it is the overwhelming number of people of color living in underserved communities that most concerns health care providers like Open Door Family Medical Center.
“Communities of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic and are the same communities where vaccine hesitancy is most prevalent,” said Dr. Daren Wu, chief medical officer at Open Door, a Federally Qualified Health Center with sites throughout the Lower Hudson Valley Region. “We tell our patients that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe – and critical for building the herd immunity necessary to end the pandemic.”
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, as many as 80 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated so the virus can’t find enough new hosts.
Mistrust in Communities of Color
According to research conducted this fall by Langer Research Associates, Unidos U.S., the NAACP and the COVID Collaborative, only 14 percent of Black respondents and 34 percent of Latino participants believe in the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine. A more recent poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Black Americans continue to remain skeptical about the vaccine with only 35 percent saying they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, citing concerns about side effects and the newness of the vaccine.
“These findings are not surprising, said Dr. Wu. “They are due to a history of racial bias, mistrust of the American health care system, and access inequities. This skepticism certainly seems justified given the exploitation of communities of color by the medical establishment over the years.”
History plays a role in this. Examples include such incidents as the Tuskegee experiment, where black men with syphilis were invited to gain free medical care but were not treated so medical professionals could study them; and the sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, whereas many as one-third of the female population was sterilized by the government with the goal to reduce poverty and unemployment.
In hopes of alleviating this gap, President Joe Biden has made vaccine access for communities of color a key feature of his $1.9 trillion plan to confront the pandemic. The plan calls for creating more vaccination sites, such as mobile clinics, to get the vaccine to hard-to-reach, marginalized communities in underserved areas.
Even prior to the pandemic, Open Door has worked closely with local clergy, elected officials and business leaders to improve public health outcomes with safety as a priority.
“We want the community to feel secure knowing that producers of these vaccines have strictly adhered to the necessary research, protocols and testing,” said Dr. Wu. “The vaccines have been brought to market in record time because of massive funding and collaboration across the globe between private and government funders. They have not been rushed to the detriment of their safety or efficacy.”
Decades of work, first years ago on the corresponding HIV spike protein and more recently on its counterparts from other viruses, including SARS, MERS, and seasonal coronaviruses, showed how best to design and produce the SARS-CoV-2 (i.e. Covid-19 version). Sophisticated methods to image the spike proteins via recent advances in electron microscopy allowed researchers and vaccine makers rapidly to study what they were making and gain assurances they were on the right track.
Dr. Wu stressed the importance of overcoming vaccine hesitancy at a time when a record number of Americans are being hospitalized and dying daily (an average of over 4,000). Westchester County has been hit hard, reporting the third-highest rate of coronavirus infections in New York State.
Open Door has seen the surge in infections among its own patients. The positivity rate jumped to 29% in the final weeks of December, and Open Door is currently providing more than 1,000 tests per week.
“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have gone through all phases of clinical trials,” said Dr. Wu. “This means that they first had to be given to tens of thousands of volunteers during these trials to make sure they were safe. Since receiving the FDA’s EUA (emergency use authorization) a little over a month ago, they have already been given to more than ten million Americans, with excellent safety reported to date.”
Bottom line, he added, “The vaccines are super safe, super effective and the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.”