Local doctors and experts are trying to bridge a gap created by a history of institutional medical abuse and neglect to reach communities of color still hesitant about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the same groups who’ve been hit hardest by the virus.
A group of elected officials, doctors and faith leaders are holding town hall meetings and Q&As, and taking photos of themselves getting the vaccine to reassure Waco’s Black and Hispanic communities of its safety.
While overall intent to get the shot had started to increase by the time the first vaccines were approaching regulatory approval less than two months ago, differences along racial lines persisted, according to Pew Research study published Dec. 3. Just 42% of Black Americans surveyed reported being inclined to get the vaccine, compared to 61% of white Americans, 63% of Hispanic Americans and 83% of Asian Americans.
Tom Gutierrez, pastor at the Spanish-language Viento Fuerte Church in Waco, was among the leaders who participated in a Spanish-language town hall last week.
Congregants who are hesitant are mostly waiting to see if any side-effects emerge before getting the vaccine themselves.
He said older members are mostly in favor and ready to get vaccinated, but younger members are more likely to hear worrying rumors online and cite them as their reason for waiting.
Gutierrez, who has received the vaccine himself, said he is still trying to find ways to put the issue in perspective.
“I see an urgency,” Gutierrez said. “We need it.”
Jimmy Hunter, pastor at Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, posted a photo to social media of himself getting the vaccine. The church has also hosted free COVID-19 testing on multiple occasions.
“As a leader I felt it would help,” Hunter said of the photo. “I felt I needed to get the vaccine and let them know the pastor has taken the shot. I can’t tell you to take it, but I would encourage you to prayerfully consider taking it.”
He said since then, more church members have agreed to get the vaccine while others remain apprehensive, but he thinks that hesitation could change quickly.
“As more and more persons are vaccinated, I think it’s going to ease the tension,” Hunter said. “For some, it just may not. They may stay quarantined and do the best they can. But I think eventually, it will become part of the norm.”
By Saturday, 15,726 McLennan County residents and more than 27 million in the United States had received at least their first shot.
After Hunter received his first shot, one church member joked that she would wait to see if he grew wings, then make her decision.
“That was a funny moment,” he said. “I told her, ‘If I grow wings, you’re just going to have to watch me ascend up and watch me.’”
The church started holding drive-in Sunday services and virtual services when the pandemic hit McLennan County, which Hunter said he did to protect his mostly elderly congregation. He said they understood and welcomed the change.
Dr. Terri Woods-Campbell said she decided to do the same kind of outreach, participating in the same town hall as Hunter.
She said she decided to post a photo of herself receiving the shot to Facebook after a discussion about the vaccine with an acquaintance, a Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest cafeteria employee. After he talked about his misgivings and she answered some of his questions, he joked that he would wait for her to get hers and see if her toes fell off.
She laughed about it later, but said she believes a significant part of the community is still dead-set against getting the vaccine.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Woods-Campbell said. “Now we’re combatting a historical distrust and the recent mistrust.”
Online conspiracies and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine range from standard anti-vaccine fare about injections containing microchips, nanobots, human tissue or the Mark of the Beast to rumors that the innovation of an mRNA vaccine has the potential to alter the recipient’s DNA. But Woods-Campbell said documented historical atrocities including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a 60-year studying during which 399 Black men with syphilis never received actual treatment for the disease even after penicillin became available, are a source of deeply ingrained distrust.
On top of that history, the previous presidential administration’s missteps and former President Donald Trump’s tweets and retweets about the virus eroded trust even more and undermined trust in the medical community at large, she said. Loudly racist supporters, including former KKK leader David Duke, pushed some minority communities further from trusting the vaccine, Woods-Campbell said.
She said if more community leaders lead the way, acknowledging the history the fears are based on but showing the vaccine is safe, that trust could be earned. She said the prominence of doctors including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African-American viral immunologist for the National Institutes of Health who played a key role in developing the vaccine, also helps.
“There are more people of color that are behind this, who would never want to hurt our community,” Woods-Campbell said.
She said the fact that there are only a handful of Black doctors in Waco means Black patients find themselves with fewer people to trust. Blackdoctor.org, where users can search for Black doctors by location, lists no family doctors in the area.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis of data from the 17 states and two cities that have released racial breakdowns of vaccine recipients “found that Black people in all places are getting inoculated at levels below their share of the general population, in some cases significantly below.”
Dr. Iliana Neumann, a faculty physician at the Waco Family Health Center, said the center is “knee-deep” in dealing with the virus’ spread and the deaths among staff and patients.
Mixed messages early on in the pandemic about the virus’ severity muddied the waters and led to unnecessary deaths, Neumann said. In her personal experience, her patients have come around since then and mostly take the threat seriously, while her colleagues are worn down, she said.
“I think mostly where we are right now is a little bit of fatigue about having to deal with those things that come with the pandemic, including to take care of kids at home and losing jobs, finances and the mental health stress that come with it,” Neumann said.
Neumann and Hunter said most of the people hesitant about the vaccine who they have spoken to are just worried about side effects or are uneasy when vaccines guidelines change. One person who spoke up during a Spanish-language town hall last week asked if they would be denied a vaccine because of their immigration status. They would not be denied.
But Neumann said that kind of concern will translate into knock-on effects of deaths, lingering illness, economic loss, and lost learning for school-age kids for years to come.
Most of her patients want the vaccine and are deeply frustrated by the pace of the rollout.
“None of this is in isolation,” Neumann said. “And so I think in their hearts patients are aware of that, and there is a distrust because of our history in medicine and other systems in general so we have to work even harder to build trust.”
Neumann said as a Latina doctor she is in a position to build trust by answering patients’ questions and address their fears. She said splitting her time between treating patients and doing public outreach is exhausting, but she considers it part of her duty.
“Our communities have been impacted the worst. We have a disproportionate number of people that have lost their lives, their livelihoods,” Neumann said. “However scary this is, a new vaccine and all the fears that come with something new, we have to take some action so our communities don’t continue to suffer.”
Neumann said initial trials had considerably more participants than usual vaccine trials and included a deliberately diverse swath of recipients.
“Sometimes we can go a little too far into the idea that different people respond, based on race, to medicine differently,” Neumann said. “Race is more of a social construct. Our basic genetics are similar. The bottom line is we’re all human beings with the same anatomical features, and this pandemic is impacting our communities not so much because of our race … but because of those sociopolitical things that put us in jobs where we’re more exposed, that make it harder to seek care, that have us in food deserts where our immune systems are coming into this at a disadvantage.”
She said she urges anyone with fears about the vaccine to reach out to a trusted doctor, pastor, or city council representative to learn more.
Dr. Thomas LaVeist, dean of the school of public health at Tulane University, said when researchers leave out crucial context, efforts to explain the virus’ path can quickly turn into blame, a pattern he said has emerged yet again with COVID-19.
“We have these narratives about race that lead to confusion, and I think the biggest narrative about race is that it has something to do with biology or genetics, that underlying narrative creeps into your thinking in subtle ways,” LaVeist said.
He said that may be why rumors suggesting Black people were somehow less likely to get the virus or had some kind of immunity began spreading after it arrived in the United States. He compared the rumor to studies that show doctors often under-treat Black patients for pain, including one the U.S. National Library of Medicine published in 2016 that “provides evidence that false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites continue to shape the way we perceive and treat black people.”
During a presentation to social work students from Baylor University, LaVeist highlighted examples of studies that left out important parts of the story. For example, a comparison of Black and white patients’ long-term health fails to mention food deserts and indirectly blames people in food deserts for not having access to healthy food.
LaVeist said he was overseas when he first heard about the novel coronavirus and the early cases being confirmed in the United States.
“My life started to spiral at that point into COVID-19 all day every day,” LaVeist said. “We were off to the races. Everyone trained in public health … is told there will be another major pandemic like this at some point. There’s not a likelihood of it. It’s a certainty. You know it’s going to happen. You just hope it doesn’t happen during your lifetime.”
LaVeist said early on, he estimated 654,000 Americans could die from the virus before the pandemic’s end. The U.S. death toll stood at 435,151 as of Saturday.
“I was hoping I was wrong, but looking at the way things have played out it’s devastating that I may actually be correct,” LaVeist said.