Vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans has turned a corner. Here's why.

Curtis Bunn
·6 min read

Richard J. Sylvia Jr. did not get an annual flu shot, so he wondered, why take the coronavirus vaccination? He understood Covid-19 was far more contagious and deadly, but as someone who had worked at a data center in a health clinic, he also knew that clinical trials for vaccines always took longer than the trial phase for the Covid-19 vaccines, given the moniker Operation Warp Speed.

So Sylvia decided to ride out the coronavirus.

Sylvia’s apprehension illustrated a larger hesitancy to get the vaccination — at first. In December, 52 percent of Black Americans said they would “wait and see” before signing up for a vaccination, while only 20 percent said they wanted the shot as soon as possible, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. At the time, the share of Black people who were skeptical about the vaccine was higher than white respondents (36 percent) and Latinos (43 percent). These figures have been shifting in recent months overall, but particularly for Black Americans.

In a March survey by KFF, 55 percent of Black respondents said they wanted the vaccination as soon as possible or were already vaccinated. Twenty-four percent were still holding back to wait and see about the vaccine’s effects. Meanwhile, Republicans and white evangelical Christians were the most likely groups to say they will not be vaccinated, according to the survey.

Medical professionals predicted vaccine hesitancy might be an issue for communities of color that were hit hard by the virus but had also been historically underserved or discriminated against when it came to health care. There has also been long-held mistrust of medical systems, since Black people had been subjected to cruel experimentations in the past, most notably in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.

Like Sylvia, Latasha Shackleford, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, was similarly hesitant to take the vaccination.

“I’m not naïve to what that history is,” she said, speaking of the exploitation of Black people in early medical experimentation. “But I wasn’t put off by that as much as I was about the efficacy of the vaccines. I was concerned about” the lack of evidence and research, she said.

Image: Latasha Shackleford (Courtesy Latasha Shackleford)
Image: Latasha Shackleford (Courtesy Latasha Shackleford)

Shackleford said she took it upon herself to learn more about the vaccine and determined health officials were “as transparent about the findings as I needed them to be. I trust vaccines in general. They work. But I also understood where people’s distrust of the Covid vaccines came from. It’s so new and there are so many unknowns.”

Shackleford, a medical office coordinator, said she reversed her feelings on getting the vaccination for a number of reasons, not the least of which was “the unpredictability of the virus. I worked in a hospital when Covid was rampant and I saw how it spread among various people. That concerned me more than the vaccine.”

She also trusted the Black medical professionals who advocated that the Black community get on board with the vaccinations, she said.

Shackleford’s takeaway was reassuring to Dr. Dominic Mack, a professor of family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine and the director of the National Center for Primary Care. The historically Black medical college has spent the last several months working in Black and underserved communities as part of a $40 million grant it received from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I’m glad but I’m not surprised at the numbers," Mack said. "African Americans and people of color are educated communities that do research and learning for themselves."

"Any educated person would say they are unsure because of the speed of the science and the mixed messages that have been shared about the vaccine," Mack continued. "But Black people are getting a clearer picture of how it works — and looking at how it has devastated our communities."

The impact of the virus was what swayed Sylvia, of Ellenwood, Georgia, to change his mind.

Image: Richard J. Sylvia Jr. and his wife, Tandra. (Courtesy Rick Sylvia)
Image: Richard J. Sylvia Jr. and his wife, Tandra. (Courtesy Rick Sylvia)

“Because we got hit the hardest, the reality kicked in that our people are getting sick and dying,” he said.

Even closer to home, however, two of his friends contracted Covid-19. Both feared for their lives but survived. One of them spent more than two weeks in the hospital on a respirator.

“He was 100 percent on oxygen,” Sylvia, 60, said. “I had just been with him two weeks before. Those two cases were very influential.”

So Sylvia and his wife, who shared his reservations, have each received their first shots.

“I went from ‘I’m not taking the vaccine’ to ‘I’ll wait’ to ‘Maybe I’ll take it earlier than I thought’ to ‘I need to make an appointment.’ That was my process,” he said.

"The reality is we all need some protection," he continued. "My concerns were valid. In the end, we also had to consider, we have a 7-year-old son we’re trying to protect. But no one will know the true effect of the vaccines for years. So we’re all just going on faith."

Image: Kelvin Lloyd (Courtesy Kelvin Lloyd)
Image: Kelvin Lloyd (Courtesy Kelvin Lloyd)

Kelvin Lloyd of Woodbridge, Virginia, planned to skip taking a vaccination, too. In addition to his distrust of the greater medical system, Lloyd, 57, had concerns about how a vaccine might interact with multiple sclerosis medication.

“I questioned taking any additional meds, not knowing the vaccine side effects or how they react to what I'm currently taking,” Lloyd, a senior project manager for the federal government, said. “I have had to consult with my medical team.”

That consultation — and other factors, including his faith — led Lloyd to come around on getting the vaccination.

"What changed? Well, knowing that God answers prayers," he said. "Not only that, but the transparency of the government and the scientists and companies responsible for developing the vaccine. I've consulted my primary care physician and my neurologist and I am cleared to take the vaccine. I would have considered myself careless and irresponsible if I did not have questions prior to me taking it."

"But now I’m optimistic about receiving it and trusting the system to ensure it is safe," he said.

Mack, the physician, said the targeted public service announcements promoting taking the vaccination had the desired results.

“The campaign has been effective, whether it’s President Obama encouraging the Black community to take the shot or local influencers,” Mack said. “A mother and a father see the pleas and pass it along to their family, and then it’s passed on and on.”

Through all the hesitancy, receiving the vaccination has provided a comfort that not taking it could not, Shackleford said.

“The fear of getting Covid-19 gave me a lot of anxiety — more than I realized,” she said. “Getting the vaccine has put me at ease.”

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