Jessica Ross, a 23-year-old Black woman in Atlanta, said she – and many other Black women in her circle – are nervous about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
She's a graduate student in public health at Emory University and has been closely following news of the vaccine's development. But that doesn't shake off the fear history has imprinted on her community.
Medical testing such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on Black men, which did not provide them with treatment to cure the disease, and the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were used for research without her or her family's permission, many have cultivated distrust in public health systems.
Many in her circle of family and friends "are nervous about, 'Is this going to be ... tested out on minority groups?'" she said. "They fear something similar happening again with the COVID-19 vaccine."
Several polls have shown the ambivalence surrounding the vaccine among people of color. Half of surveyed Black adults aren't planning to take the vaccine, even if it's available free and scientists assure it's safe, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated, ESPN's race, sports and culture website.
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But a recent survey has found Black women like Ross and Latino women, more than men, are most reluctant to get the vaccine.
Only 19% of Black women and about one-fifth of Latina women opted to take the vaccine as soon as possible, according to the poll by MassINC Polling Group in Massachusetts, which surveyed 1,100 residents across the state.
In contrast, 36% of Black men and just shy of a quarter of Latino men responded they’d take the vaccine as soon as possible.
That rate was about a third of white women and 44% of white men.
Women of color are 'critical' to dispel COVID-19 vaccine fears
Experts and members of these communities aren’t surprised. The country’s history of unethical testing and experimentation on Black men and women colors the community’s lack of trust. But as the coronavirus continues to threaten people of color most, medical experts say dispelling skepticism is essential, and women of color could be the key.
Folakemi Odedina, a pharmaceutical scientist and longtime researcher of health disparities, is the principal investigator at the University of Florida’s CaRE2 Health Equity center in Orlando, which started under the National Institutes of Health’s federal cancer research program.
"The goal is to develop the right information for Black and Latino and Native American communities, and tailor or target that information for them,” Odedina said.
Odedina has been spearheading a focus group of Floridia residents to extract the specific concerns people of color have about the vaccine and provide information.
She said that although concerns about the vaccine were expressed equally among men and women in her focus group, women of color are “critical” to dispel fears because of their leadership roles in their families and communities.
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When Black women, who are often the family caregivers, are informed, they can then ensure their families get vaccinated, she said.
“The women of color, think about it: We are the backbone,” she said. "To reach the large number of people who will pass the information down, the role of women of color is very critical.”
Dr. Fatima Rodriguez, an assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University’s medical school who has been researching death and hospitalization rates among Black and Latino COVID-19 patients, also noted that many women of color are leaders of multigenerational households.
"They can get their kids to take the vaccine, their husbands, other family members that live in these multigenerational households. So we certainly want the head of the household to get vaccinated and then encourage others to do so," she said.
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Although she has heard the hesitance among Black men in her circle, Ross said the worries come mostly from women.
“I actually have heard at least one person say specifically, ‘I have a family that I need to be around for,’ ” Ross said, referring to a colleague who is a Black mom in her mid-30s. “In my circle, I’ve been hearing it brought up more in the minority women.”
She's not sure specifically why, but Rodriguez said the lack of research about the vaccine's safety among pregnant and breastfeeding women may be a contributing factor.
“Women that are pregnant, that are breastfeeding – that’s a little bit of a gray zone – is the vaccine safe? Because it hasn’t been studied (on them),” Rodriguez said.
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Historically, public health campaigns are usually developed to help educate and inform communities about the safety, effectiveness and importance of vaccinations – but the COVID-19 vaccine was developed so quickly that proper dissemination of information to specific populations hasn’t really been done yet, Rodriguez said.
“It shows we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “What we need to do is have trusted community ambassadors and messengers just relaying that this is a safe vaccine, that it’s efficacious.”
Part of that, Rodriguez said, is ensuring that Black, Latino and Native American women and men understand the alternative of not getting vaccinated.
“Most of these people are not going to die or get sick (from taking the vaccine),” she said. “The alternative is so serious that I think that really stresses to our communities that we have to get vaccinated.”
To help establish trust among their own communities, Odedina suggested medical leaders of color should lead by example and publicize their own willingness to take the vaccine.
“When it’s my turn to take it, I’m happy to take it in public,” Odedina said.
But Ross expressed the opposite. She said it would quell her skepticism more to see people in high positions of leadership – white elected officials – getting the vaccine first before targeting treatment to Black and Latino people.
"People that are not minorities, white Americans, white men and white women who have high privilege … have access to higher quality resources or extremely beneficial or high-quality health care," she said. "Those are the people that I would like to see going forth and taking this vaccine first."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 vaccine: Women of color 'critical' in minority communities