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A matter of trust: Overcoming COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

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When coronavirus vaccinations were first offered late last year, millions of Americans flocked to sign up. But some—especially in historically underserved communities of color—were hesitant, if not outright opposed. Senior contributor Ted Koppel sits down with community leaders and healthcare workers to explore the roots of this skepticism, and the challenges of getting the vaccine to the people who need it the most.

Video Transcript

- The decision to sign up for a COVID vaccine ultimately comes down to a matter of trust. And for some Americans, that trust isn't there for a multitude of reasons, as senior contributor Ted Koppel explains.

TED KOPPEL: Sometimes a cliche hits a little too close to home. The Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, for example, does look like a war zone. Most of the residents are African-American. And what that means, not just here but nationally, is that they are being hospitalized and dying of COVID at two to three times the rate of white Americans.

DEREK DEWITT: It's a very depressed neighborhood right now. We still have massive unemployment within the community.

TED KOPPEL: The Reverend Derek DeWitt is a field marshal in the local war against poverty, disease, and hunger.

DEREK DEWITT: My church is located in a food desert. 74 square blocks of Sandtown. We have about 109 establishments that sell alcohol, but we don't have one single supermarket.

[CHATTER]

TED KOPPEL: 5,000 families a month are getting food at the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

- Tell the reverend thanks.

DEREK DEWITT: Oh, y'all welcome. No, thank you. God bless y'all.

TED KOPPEL: Convincing those same people to get vaccinated against COVID is more complicated. Blame some of that on the trash circulating on the internet.

DEREK DEWITT: There's this conspiracy that Bill Gates has helped them to design a microchip that will be implanted in you as a result of the vaccination.

- They want to track you. They want to control you. They want to crush your soul like a grape.

TED KOPPEL: This headline claims to show government health workers-- clearly many years ago-- injecting southern rural blacks with syphilis. Then the question, still want a corona vaccine? The government didn't inject anyone with syphilis. But what did happen, was in some respects, even worse.

REED TUCKSON: The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in African-Americans, again in the 1930s. It was a study that was done without informed consent of the men. And it was done in a way that watch to observe what would happen to those who already had syphilis. And it was untreated to see what the effects would be.

TED KOPPEL: Dr. Reed Tuckson is co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, providing facts about the vaccine.

REED TUCKSON: If you care about Tuskegee-- and it makes you angry as it should-- then make sure you know you have a drug that will save you from this disease.

TED KOPPEL: Almost 50 years after it ended, the Tuskegee study remains an issue.

What happened to those men?

REED TUCKSON: Unfortunately, two things-- those men died because of the disease and became extremely ill for long, long periods of their life. And number two, because they were not told the disease they had, they spread that disease to the women in their lives, to their wives and lovers, who also got syphilis as a result.

TED KOPPEL: Was anyone ever punished?

REED TUCKSON: No one was ever punished or held accountable, and that is a stain on America's conscience.

TED KOPPEL: It has also had a lingering impact on the Black community's confidence in the medical establishment.

DEREK DEWITT: When I talk to our employees, it was everything. I don't know what's in the vaccine. I don't trust it. They developed it too fast. They're trying to make us sterile.

- Hey, pastor?

TED KOPPEL: In addition to his ministry, the Reverend Dewitt runs a nursing home.

DEREK DEWITT: That nursing home was started by a group of pastors in the city as the Maryland Baptist Age Home for Colored People in 1920.

TED KOPPEL: Nationwide, more than 160,000 COVID deaths have occurred in nursing homes, all of which makes this nursing home's health record that much more remarkable.

How many people among your staff have died?

DEREK DEWITT: We've had no COVID infections amongst our staff or our residents, thank God. So we count that as a miracle and a blessing.

TED KOPPEL: It is also the mark of a tough, disciplined manager.

DEREK DEWITT: We we're extreme in our measures because we didn't allow anybody in. Our residents didn't go out unless it was an extreme emergency.

TED KOPPEL: But when time came to vaccinate the staff--

DEREK DEWITT: Mr. Koppel, I was surprised even at my nursing home, which has 42 employees. Our first vaccination clinic, we only had 11 employees take the vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: The reverend set the example. He was the first to be vaccinated. He talked to his staff one on one. He prayed with them.

DEREK DEWITT: So that kind of helped. And then we had to get down to the point where, for the sake of our residents and the type of facility that we are, I'm not sure that I could guarantee your job if you don't take the vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: All but two of his employees got the message and the vaccine.

Have you had to fire anybody?

DEREK DEWITT: We have not had to fire anybody. There is some discrepancies of whether or not we can mandate the vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: But what you're telling me is that we've now had COVID in this country for over a year. And in that time, you haven't had a single case?

DEREK DEWITT: We haven't had a single case.

TED KOPPEL: AG Rhodes operates three non-profit nursing homes in the greater Atlanta area. Over the past year, 26 of their residents and one staff member have died from COVID. Jovonne Harvey is marketing director at the flagship facility.

JOVONNE HARVEY: About 90% of the facility is probably African-American.

TED KOPPEL: And when the patients first heard about the vaccine, what was the reaction?

JOVONNE HARVEY: They welcomed it because they wanted to get back to their normal daily functions.

TED KOPPEL: And what about the staff? Same thing?

JOVONNE HARVEY: They weren't as excited to receive the vaccine as the residents were. [LAUGHS]

TED KOPPEL: (CHUCKLES) You're-- you're being very, very diplomatic.

JOVONNE HARVEY: [LAUGHS]

TED KOPPEL: They not only weren't excited, they were resistant, weren't they?

JOVONNE HARVEY: Yes. They were-- they were very resistant. I would say about 30% of the staff were prepared to take the vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: The company's CEO recorded a video educating and encouraging the staff to get vaccinated. Jovonne was initially reluctant, but she got the vaccine and encouraged other staff members to consider it.

So you were kind of the role model in some respects?

JOVONNE HARVEY: Yes. They could see me and see I'm OK. I didn't have a reaction. I'm not walking backwards. I'm not speaking in tongues. I'm actually OK.

TED KOPPEL: Did that help?

JOVONNE HARVEY: I think it helped a lot.

TED KOPPEL: Well, not so much. The company even offered incentives, paid time off, bonuses of up to $500. But as of now, just 48% of the staff has been vaccinated.

That's not great.

JOVONNE HARVEY: It's not great, but it is definitely a start.

TED KOPPEL: Jovonne, we've been in the clutches of this pandemic for over a year. How much time do people need? We've got 450 some odd thousand dead.

JOVONNE HARVEY: I know.

TED KOPPEL: What's holding them back now?

JOVONNE HARVEY: I just think is just overall fear. They're not quite sure which way to go.

TED KOPPEL: Often, says Dr. Reed Tuckson, reaction is a function of generation.

REED TUCKSON: We are seeing from the data that older African-Americans are much, much more willing to accept the vaccine than the youngest. The population segment in the Black community that's most resistant are going to be our young people. These are young people that have grown up with the greatest level of distrust because of all the issues that they have faced in their life, particularly around the criminal justice and policing issues. So they are the ones that are the toughest right now to reach.

TED KOPPEL: The most intense concentrations of COVID occur at the intersection of poverty, Black, and Latino neighborhoods. Los Angeles is a perfect example.

JIM MANGIA: You know, LA is really a tale of two cities. You have the extremely wealthy West side. And then you have the extremely poor South side and East side.

How long you think most of these folks are going to wait today?

- It's not long--

TED KOPPEL: Jim Mangia is president and CEO of St. John's Well Child and Family Center. Their community clinics in South LA and Compton see 100,000 patients a year, including 35,000 undocumented immigrants.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

- She's saying that I've had my cousins, my aunts. Even she has got in the vaccines. There should be no fear regarding it.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

TED KOPPEL: St. Johns has been dispatching Spanish-speaking outreach workers into the Latino neighborhoods.

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

- [SPEAKING SPANISH]

TED KOPPEL: Some fears are common to every community.

- I don't know if it's true, like the side effects.

TED KOPPEL: Health workers need to provide the undocumented with reassurance on two counts-- that the vaccine is safe, and that they needn't fear immigration authorities.

What would you say are the biggest hurdles in the way of getting the most underserved communities in California vaccinated?

JIM MANGIA: The lack of vaccine is a major issue. The arduous website and appointment system is extremely difficult to navigate. And many of our patients who work all day. By the time they get home, all those appointments have been taken by folks from the West side, white, young hipsters that can spend all day searching for a vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: St. John's outreach efforts are starting to pay off with long lines at their appointment-only vaccination sites.

- I nee one-- just one of y'all.

JIM MANGIA: Our patients don't have the capacity to take off of work and go wait on a mega pod line for four or five hours to get vaccine. They need to come into a clinic at 5:30 or 6:00 or 7:00 or on a Saturday. They don't have the luxury of bringing their beach chairs and sitting on a line playing on their laptop while they're waiting for a vaccine.

TED KOPPEL: Preliminary government data confirm Jim Mangia's suspicions. More than 60% of vaccinations have been going to whites, less than 9% to Hispanics, less than 6% to Blacks.

DEREK DEWITT: I don't think we're going to be successful unless we figure out a way to bring the vaccine to the people. We're seeing 5,000 people a month come through our church to get food.

Got some good stuff in there today. Y'all doing all right? Good, good.

And we could vaccinate during a food drive. If we enlist the faith-based community as partners in the vaccination process, I think that it would go a long way to making sure that people get the vaccine.

JIM MANGIA: You have to vaccinate the most vulnerable first, and that's how you going to really get to herd immunity. You have to vaccinate the most hesitant, the most vulnerable. And then you can really start to do mass vaccination and get us to a place where we can return to a normal life.