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Older Black veterans are taking the COVID-19 vaccine through the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at a higher rate than white and Hispanic veterans in the same age group, which officials said was a result of early outreach efforts.
Thirty-four percent of Black veterans age 75 and older who use the VA medical system have received the vaccine. That is higher than the 29 percent of white veterans and 31 percent of Hispanic veterans in that age category, according to data provided to McClatchy by the Veterans Health Administration.
Last summer, before the vaccine was available, the VA held listening sessions with Black and minority veterans to get their advice on how to build trust in the COVID vaccine.
“We asked them, basically, what would it take for veterans of color to be willing to be vaccinated when it was available,” said Dr. Ernest Moy, executive director of the Office of Health Equity at the Veterans Health Administration, which runs the VA’s medical facilities.
The VA incorporated the direct feedback into its outreach, Moy said. One suggestion was to address the past.
“People want to hear about the mistakes that were made in Tuskegee, in the past, explicitly,” Moy said. “They don’t just want that glossed over.”
In the Tuskegee Institute study, which began in 1932 and was stopped in 1972, the Public Health Service secretly studied the impact of untreated syphilis on hundreds of Black men and did not provide them a remedy even when penicillin was approved to treat the infection.
Dozens of men in the study died of complications stemming from syphilis and their wives and children were also infected, according to Tuskegee University.
At the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Miss., among their older veterans “the Tuskegee experiment has been some of the discussion,” but it is less of a factor for younger veterans, said Bryan Matthews, the system’s medical center director.
“One of the things that we encourage veterans, as we talk with them, is that there’s always something that has happened in the past. And the past can’t drive how we move forward in the future,” Matthews said.
Veterans in the listening sessions also advised that they needed to hear about the vaccine directly from their own doctors.
“So starting in the fall, the providers started to speak with their patients about the need for vaccination and the importance of vaccination,” Moy said.
Another piece of advice the veterans offered was to have local leaders talk to area veterans about the vaccine, which Matthews does.
Matthews, who is Black, has received the vaccine and wears a “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” pin to spur questions and conversation.
“I always tell people here, if they have any questions, or if they want, you know, an African American perspective, I’m available to have any discussion with anybody,” he said.
The outreach has paid off. Only about two percent of veterans age 75 and up who have been offered the vaccine are turning it down, Moy said.
The uptake rate shows there’s “less hesitancy among Black vets than we feared,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters last week.
The veterans’ refusal rate is lower than what is being recorded among active duty service members.
In a February hearing, defense officials told the House Armed Services Committee that approximately one-third of active duty troops were refusing to take the vaccine. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the “opt-in” rate for the vaccine is lower than 50 percent, said XVIII Airborne Corps spokesman Col. Joe Buccino.
Because the vaccine is still in emergency use authorization status, the Department of Defense has not made taking it mandatory for service members, but has left open the possibility that it may become mandatory in the future.
At Fort Bragg, in conversations with soldiers on base, Buccino said some are waiting to see how the vaccine impacts other soldiers who take it, and some do not have a sense of urgency, despite efforts to caution them about the possible long-term health effects of COVID-19.
“They feel that they are healthy, they are young, and that nothing is really going to happen to them if they get [COVID],” Buccino said in an email to McClatchy. “The problem with that thinking is that we have seen young, healthy soldiers have serious symptoms.”
The base is conducting outreach to soldiers to discuss the risks of COVID-19 versus the risks of the vaccine, Buccino said.
“Our leaders respect each Soldier’s decision to opt out. It’s a personal choice. For us, we want to ensure that every Soldier makes the most informed decisions,” Buccino said.