Experts hope to fight COVID-19 vaccine distrust among Black community through education

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- When it comes to beating COVID-19, experts say getting as many people vaccinated as possible is key. But among Black communities, there's still significant hesitation to take the shot.

ABC7 News Anchor Kumasi Aaron takes a look at what's behind the concern, and the efforts to connect with the community.

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Aaron got mixed responses when she asked Black people at Lake Merritt how they felt about taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I'm on the fence about it," one man said.

"I don't know I'm kinda iffy," one woman said. "I think I'm going to wait."

Another man said, "The day they let us take it, I'm going to take it."

"I'm to the point now where I have a lot of friends who have died," one woman explained. "And I'm to the point where I'm going to risk and I'm going to take it."

"I'm not sure," another man explained. "I think I need to do a lot more research about it."

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But nationwide, only 42% of Black adults say they would definitely or probably take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Pew Research Center. It's even worse in California.

Fewer than 29% of Black people surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California said they would probably or definitely get vaccinated. That was the lowest percentage of any racial group.

The question is, why?

"How quick it came out," one man said. "It came out too fast."

"What if it doesn't work?" one woman asked. "Side effects? They don't have the kinks all out yet."

"I don't trust these folks," another man said.

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That lack of trust is one of the biggest issues Kevin Epps and AJ Burleson encounter doing COVID-19 testing and outreach in Black and Brown communities with Umoja Health.

"Just those histories of harm have been passed on," Epps explained. "So our people do have a distrust of the health care industry as a whole."

A big part of that history is the Tuskegee Study.

In 1932, the United States government enrolled 600 African American sharecroppers in a study to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis but told the men they were receiving free health care.

Nearly 400 of the men had syphilis but researchers never told them, and none of the men were treated with penicillin, even though it was widely available and had become the standard treatment for syphilis by 1947.

The study didn't stop until 1972 after a whistleblower tipped off the press.

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"That's not that long ago," said Burleson.

Burleson says the racism and discrimination of the past still linger in the health care system now.

"They say things like, 'Oh, we don't experience as much pain as other groups,' which is totally not true," Burleson explains. "So when all those types of things being perpetuated, and those myths that continue to go on, you kind of just give up on the medical system."

That's why Umoja Health, a partner of UCSF, is on the front lines. Volunteers are in communities having conversations to build trust through connection and credible information.

It seems to be paying off. Of the Black people surveyed during Umoja Health's testing events in Oakland, 40% said they would definitely or probably get the COVID-19 vaccine, higher than state average.

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"The level at which we have folks saying yes, we are definitely are probably willing to take it suggests that that our efforts are coalition, the way we do business in terms of community, contacting community probably should be embedded somewhere in the city and county's efforts going forward," said Dr. Kim Rhoads, Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at UCSF.

And when it comes to beating COVID-19, that's what it's all about.

"Everybody needs to be on board," Epps says. "Everybody has to participate. We can't leave vulnerable populations out."

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