Despite the recent promising news about a COVID-19 vaccine, a growing body of evidence has found that the drug faces high levels of distrust among Black and Latino populations — the same communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
So a Boston church decided to enlist the nation’s most trusted health expert to overcome that skepticism: Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed Roxbury Presbyterian Church in a Zoom meeting last week, urging the mostly Black congregation to have confidence in the independent and scientifically rigorous vaccine development process.
“Don’t deprive yourself of the advantage of an extraordinarily important advance in science by not getting vaccinated,” he said. “Protect yourselves, your family, and your community.”
Communities of color have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 infections and death primarily due to both deep-rooted socioeconomic inequities, often known as social determinants of health, and higher rates of certain chronic diseases that make individuals more vulnerable to the disease. A recent study found that Black and Latino residents in Boston were far more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 due to disparities commuting to work, accessing food, using public transit, and exercising, as The Boston Globe reported last week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Latino individuals are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to non-Hispanic white individuals. They’re also 3.7 and 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized due to the disease.
At the same time, polls have shown those same communities are the most hesitant about a COVID-19 vaccine, which officials hope to begin distributing over the course of the coming months and make widely available around next spring.
A survey released last Monday found that 52 percent of Black respondents, as well as 34 percent of Latino respondents, said they would either definitely or probably not get the vaccine, due to concerns about its safety and effectiveness.
Rev. Liz Walker, the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a former WBZ anchor, told WBUR that she reached out to Fauci after seeing high levels of hesitancy about the vaccine in her own community.
“I was really surprised at how many parishioners, how many people, not just in the church, but in the community, said they weren’t going to take the vaccine,” Walker said. “I wanted to do something about that because I sincerely believe we need to take it.”
Among members of the Black community, distrust in government and racial identity was particularly linked to vaccine skepticism, according to the recent survey — and not for no reason. The survey author linked the distrust to “deep historical traumas” of racially discriminatory practices by both the government and health care institutions.
For example, they found that knowledge of the federal government’s infamous Tuskegee experiment from 1932 to 1972, in which a group of Black men in Alabama who had syphilis were not told about it or treated for it so that researchers could study the disease, was associated with increased vaccine hesitancy. Other examples of medical racism range from the work of Marion Sims to the treatment of Henrietta Lacks.
Distrust in President Donald Trump’s administration and the perception that the vaccine development is being rushed has only fanned those flames.
“It’s ironic, but the very reason that we feel we’re getting sicker [with COVID-19] is because we feel we haven’t been properly dealt with in the health care arena,” Walker told WBUR. “Now, you add to that the political situation, so you have a perfect storm of problems in my community of wanting to take this vaccine.”
Walker said during the meeting, which was posted online Tuesday, that they had more than 2,000 people register for the virtual event with Fauci.
During the meeting, the 79-year-old disease expert acknowledged the “history of the abuse, particularly of the African American community,” by the medical establishment, specifically mentioning Tuskegee and Lacks, as well as the “mixed signals that one has been getting in this divisive society from Washington.”
However, he stressed that the approval of COVID-19 vaccines has been conducted separately from partisan officials or pharmaceutical companies in a multi-level, independent process overseen by “career scientists, not politicians.”
“What you’re having is both independence and transparency, and at the end of the day, all of those data become public because they will be published in peer-reviewed journals,” Fauci said of the recent trials that have found three different vaccines to be at least 90 percent effective.
“Number two, the speed with which it’s been done does not compromise safety, nor does it compromise scientific integrity,” Fauci said. “It’s the exquisite nature of the breathtaking scientific advances that have occurred over the last decade or so that have allowed us to do things in weeks to months that formerly took years, so you should not be intimidated by how fast it was done. …. The safety issues were primary in everyone’s mind during the testing of this vaccine.”
Still, the efficacy of the vaccine doesn’t matter if individuals don’t get it. And given how hard hit communities of color have been, Fauci said it is especially important for many people to get vaccinated to create community immunity.
“If you have a highly effective vaccine and the overwhelming majority of people get vaccinated, we can crush this outbreak,” he said.
The vaccine distribution plan submitted by Massachusetts also puts a specific focus on “critical populations” and includes a public awareness campaign to address skepticism. Amid evidence that the vaccine trials have been slow to recruit minorities, Fauci said that he’s hoping to encourage people of color to volunteer so that officials “can look our African American and our Latinx colleagues in the eye and say, ‘We’ve proven that it is not only safe and effective in whites, it’s safe and effective in you and your community.'” So far, Fauci said there haven’t been “any severe adverse events” due to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Fauci noted that the United States has recorded between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths a day due to COVID-19 over the past month, even if fatality rates had fallen compared to the spring. Already, he noted, more than a quarter of a million people have died from the disease.
“We’re getting younger people getting infected,” Fauci said. “We’re also doing better at taking care of people. But that’s not an excuse to just say, ‘Well, who cares? Let more people get infected.’ If we don’t stop this outbreak, we will have an extraordinarily large number of deaths. That’s the reason why vaccines are so important.”