How to build African American trust in a COVID vaccine? Empower Black nurses and doctors, says LA Times’ Erika Smith

Dr. Sheila Young manages the mobile COVID-19 testing site at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Photo by Ted Soqui/KCRW.

We’re hearing a lot about the progress made on a much-needed coronavirus vaccine. But not all communities are clamoring to get in line. 

Across the U.S. only a third of Black adults say they plan to get the shots. In the Golden State, it’s below 30 percent, according to the PPIC. That’s despite the fact that Black Californians are still disproportionately dying from COVID-19. 

Los Angeles Times columnist Erika Smith says the aversion to the vaccine should come as no surprise due to the long history of racial discrimination in health care. “Many of us grew up hearing stories as children about how Black men were left to suffer during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” Smith says. And it’s part of a legacy that’s undermined faith in the medical industry. She’s been talking to Black healthcare workers and writing about how to build confidence.

So what will it take to convince people who fear the vaccine to get on board? 

Smith told KCRW that the most important thing is to understand that there will not be a quick fix, despite the understandable rush to reach herd immunity. “You can’t fix decades of mistrust in a matter of weeks or months. We need to get comfortable that this is going to take a bit of time,” she said. 

As a vaccine rolls out, healthcare workers are likely to be first in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine. So people of color in the industry will play a key role, she said. “Seeing those Black nurses and doctors, knowing they’ve gotten the vaccine, them being able to tell their patients ‘Hey, I got it, I’m fine. This is good, you should do it too,’ that’s going to go a long way as well.”   

There’s a debate in Los Angeles County about whether to prioritize specific, most affected communities, or whether the vaccine should be offered on a more “first come first serve” basis. Smith said she sees dangers in both strategies. 

“I think if you target Black and Brown communities, it’s going to reiterate this idea that the government is testing on Black people,” she says. “If you put it out ‘first come first serve,’ without thinking of equity, I think it’s also going to create a backlash because people are going to say well ‘you don’t really care about us.’ It’s a really tough situation.”   

As for long term solutions, more Black physicians entering the profession would help. Studies show patients have better outcomes if they’re served by doctors who look like them. 

“I’m 43 years old,” Smith said, “and I’ve never had a Black doctor in my life.” 

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