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Many Latinos are hesitant to receive COVID-19 vaccine, poll shows

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The Biden administration faces several hurdles to inoculating the U.S. against COVID-19 as quickly as possible, including hesitancy among Latino communities. A recent poll shows nearly half of Latinos in the U.S. will wait and see how the vaccine affects those who receive the shot. Professor Iris Lopez, the director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at City College of New York, spoke to CBSN's Tanya Rivero about the history of mistrust among Latinos with the medical community.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: President Biden is ramping up the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in order to inoculate the country as quickly as possible. But his administration faces several hurdles, including hesitancy among Latino communities. A recent poll shows nearly half of Latinos in the US will wait and see how the vaccine affects others who receive the shot. Only 26% say they will definitely get the vaccine when it becomes available to them. Latinos in the US are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. But a long history of medical mistrust may be stopping some from getting in line.

Iris Lopez joins me now. She is the director of Latin American and Latino studies at the City College of New York. She is also a professor of sociology. Professor Lopez, welcome. Great to have you with us. So we know that Latinos have some of the highest COVID cases and death rates in the US. We also know that this vaccine is safe. So why are more than 40% of Latinos hesitant to receive this vaccine? What specific concerns do they have?

IRIS LOPEZ: Well I think that there is a diversity of concerns. And it really does depend on the community that we're talking about, whether we're talking about immigrants, the elderly, students. You know, it-- it really does vary. For example, immigrants, their concerns may also vary depending on whether they-- they are documented or not and, of course, fear deportation if you're going to hospitals.

The idea that you need to have health care in order to get this vaccination I think is something that might stop some people from going. And something as simple as not having a computer or not knowing how to use a computer to make appointments could be another factor I know that this is true for the elderly and some immigrant populations. I think that there is a lot of skepticism also and-- and fear that-- that the vaccination hasn't been tested for a very long time. And there's some legitimate concerns around that.

But also, I think that the fear comes from people's experiences with the health care system today and some of the things that they know about, the studies, the experiments that have been done, for example, among the African-American population, the Tuskegee study, and among Puerto Ricans, the-- the testing of the birth control pill. I mean, these are, depending on the generation we're talking about and people's experiences, there are a variety of different problems that we have to look at and--

TANYA RIVERO: Right. Yes. I agree. And so for our-- our viewers who aren't familiar about this history of deception in the medical world, in the 1950s, Puerto Rican women were given an experimental birth control pill without knowledge that was part of a clinical trial to bring the pill to the mainland. Can you walk us through the effects that trial had on women involved and the generations of Puerto Rican women after that?

IRIS LOPEZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I could spend a lot of time talking about this, but I'll try to limit my comments. I think in order to understand why-- why the pill was tested on Puerto Rican women, we need to take into account the social and historical context in which these trials took place. And Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States since 1898 to this day. And-- and the birth control movement on the island emerged within the social context of neo-Malthusian and eugenic ideologies, which just very briefly, the Malthusian ideology was the idea that there were too many-- that the reason Puerto Rico was so poor was because there were too many people, overpopulation.

And the eugenic ideology was the idea that Euro-Americans or Europeans were genetically superior. And the wealthy were superior to everyone else. And so the idea was that-- that the poor, and especially people of color who were poor, should not reproduce or at least should limit their reproduction.

And so I think that just to briefly say that in 1937, sterilization was-- became legal in Puerto Rico. And I'm not sure how much our viewers know about sterilization in Puerto Rico. But by 1995, depending on the survey you look at, 44%, 40% to 44% of the female population between the ages of 15 and 45 were surgically sterilized. Now, that-- and that was all part of this kind of population control unofficial program in Puerto Rico that-- that worked with immigration.

Now, to get back to the trials, so-- so what happened in Puerto Rico is that women were not given, were not provided with temporary methods of birth control. We know that the pill was not developed in the United States-- it wasn't certified by the Food and Drug Administration until 1960. But they started those trials on the island in 1956. And they went on from 1956 to, you know, almost the end of 1959.

And they were-- the pill was tested on poor women, women with low levels of education, women who lived in very, very poor communities. They weren't informed of the risk of what they were doing. They were asked if they wanted to participate in a family planning program. And because women were so desperate for any kind of birth control, many of them agreed. But so they weren't--

TANYA RIVERO: Professor Lopez? Professor Lopez? I want to just--


TANYA RIVERO: Because we might run out of time, I just want to ask you also about some of the other cases because this medical mistreatment was certainly not limited to Puerto Rico. In the '40s, the US government led an STD experiment using sex workers in Guatemala. Migrants today are accusing the US of sterilizing them when they cross the border. So looking forward, what does the US medical community need to do to earn the trust of these communities where there is a history of medical abuse and convince them to get the vaccine?

IRIS LOPEZ: I think that one of the things that has to be done is that the community leaders and politicians of these communities need to get vaccinated first. And they need to show, you know, they need to lead the way and show people that are-- that they trust the vaccination, that they're doing it, and that they feel safe enough, and it's certainly much better than getting ill. We need to get people-- social media has to be used to explain this-- the vaccination to people.

And I mean, but to me, the primary thing is-- is to lead by example. And I myself have been vaccinated. And I think that the more-- the more people who are and the more community leaders and the more politicians that represent these communities, the better the chances of others following will be. And the more that it's, you know, the more accessible it is, right? Up to now, the vaccination hasn't been that accessible to everyone who wants it.

And so I think that now that it's becoming more available within these underserved and racialized communities, then I think that we're going to see a change in those numbers. But I know that a lot of people are afraid. And-- and they feel that they currently have not had good experiences in the health care clinics or with health care providers. And so they carry this over. But-- but I think that, you know I think that this will slowly change. And we need more information--

TANYA RIVERO: It will take--

IRIS LOPEZ: --more education, more availability.

TANYA RIVERO: Right. It will take a concerted effort for sure. Well, Professor Iris Lopez, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your time.

IRIS LOPEZ: Thank you, Tanya. Thank you for having me. Bye.