COVID-19 vaccines in minority communities: what is the hesitation?

The vaccine has great potential as long as people are willing to contribute to our herd immunity. Ultimately, a return to semi-normalcy hinges on whether enough people begin to get vaccinated across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic status.

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One year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped everyone in their tracks, but is there a light at the end of the tunnel? In November 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Moderna, Pfizer and most recently, Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which is now on hold, yet many people are still not getting vaccinated. The information surrounding the vaccine is causing both hope and concern. On one hand, we know the vaccine is projected to create herd immunity and ultimately a steady decline in cases and eventually the end to the pandemic.   However, on the other end, the expedited nature of the vaccine is causing some doubt, stress, and hesitation about its effectiveness and unknown long-term effects. Deciding to get vaccinated is a personal choice, but with so much controversy, what’s the right call?

Generations of health inequities have caused the Black, Hispanic/Latino and other communities of color to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation “the vaccination rate among White people was over twice as high as the rate for Hispanics (19% vs. 9%) and nearly twice as high as the rate for African Americans (19% vs. 11%).” So, if research increasingly shows that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus disease, why is the vaccination rate lower? Part of this could be a lack of information.   The equity of information and outreach to minority communities has been questioned by some. Mel Wright, a native of LA, spoke to me about the critical lack of education in African American and Hispanic communities. She said, “I feel that the outreach needed to be more informative. I ended up hearing about the vaccine being given in the Crenshaw district much later. There should have been more advertising. Not everybody has a job, or social media. If people aren’t out there advertising it, only a limited amount of people will find out.” The COVID vaccination effort can only be successful if people know about it, and more importantly, know where to get it.

However, even if vaccination information was equally advertised, hesitation about the vaccine’s efficacy and its potential side effects remains a concern. When asked if she had received the vaccine, Mrs. Wright responded, “No, I have not gotten it. I’m not saying that I won’t take it, but not yet. I feel that it came way too fast. How can we know anything about the vaccine before a full year of studying how people’s bodies will react to it?” The Center for Disease Control lists expected side-effects to the vaccine on its website: tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, and fever. All of these are to be expected after a shot, but the real question is what lies ahead after vaccination? With such expedited research and vaccine production, are we putting our future health at risk to end the pandemic? According to Robert H. Shmerling from Harvard Health Publishing, “the information we have about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccinations is encouraging. Minor side effects should be expected; severe allergic reactions may rarely occur. Side effects from the vaccine are not reasons for most people to avoid vaccination.”

Extensive community engagement that builds on trusted relationships, especially in areas that have been hardest hit, is essential. Using community-based organizations and other partner organizations such as hospitals, pharmacies, faith-based organizations, and community centers can support community outreach and foster credibility.

The only way we will be successful is if we think outside the box and not rely on a system that has already failed to reach the vulnerable communities. With all the stress, uncertainty, and hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused how do we look to a future when COVID will not threaten our people, neighborhoods, and communities. Rastafarian musician, Wadada, thinks that whether or not we will return to a normal version of life after almost a year of lockdowns and social distancing, COVID-19 created a social awakening that was very necessary. He said, “There is a bright side to COVID. It’s heightened people’s awareness. Is it a coincidence that COVID and “I can’t breathe” came about at the same time?”

What is exciting about medicine today is how advanced technology is. The vaccine has great potential as long as people are willing to contribute to our herd immunity. Ultimately, a return to semi-normalcy hinges on whether enough people begin to get vaccinated across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic status. This will allow society reach a level that will protect those who have yet to be vaccinated because of lack of education, access and equal outreach. So, though the vaccine comes with unknowns, it might to be our best shot at protecting ourselves and looking after those underserved communities who are most at risk.

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