For years, I never bothered getting a flu shot, partly because I wasn’t high risk and also because I am leery about total strangers poking needles into me.
This year, though, I put all of that aside and got vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia. When a vaccine for COVID-19 finally becomes available, I’ll get inoculated for that too. I’d rather not, but then again, I also would rather not come down with COVID-19.
Former President Barack Obama plans to be vaccinated on camera to shore up public confidence in the vaccine’s safety. But don’t be surprised if that’s not enough to persuade the vast majority of Black folks to immediately follow suit.
“That is about the health-care system being untrustworthy to African Americans,” explained Dr. Ala Stanford, a board-certified surgeon and founder of the Philadelphia-based Black Doctors COVID Consortium. “I think we have to stop saying that ‘Black people don’t trust the health-care system.’ It is that the health-care system has been untrustworthy to African Americans. There’s a difference and that’s the history.”
Because of that troubling history, a new Pew study revealed recently that Black people are less inclined to get vaccinated than any other racial and ethnic group. Only 42% of those Black respondents surveyed said they intend to be vaccinated, compared with 61% of white people.
The Black Doctors COVID Consortium, which provides free COVID-19 testing around the city, came up with similar survey findings. Only 42% of the mostly Black subjects they interviewed plan to be inoculated as soon as the vaccine is available.
Many African Americans haven’t forgotten about being treated like guinea pigs in various medical experiments, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which Black men infected with the sexually transmitted disease were told they were getting free health care but instead went untreated for decades.
“Even though the young people don’t know about the experiments and things, they remember their mom or their grandmom saying, ‘You don’t go to the doctor unless you’re about to die. You just don’t,’ ” Stanford said. “And, ‘If they are giving you a shot, look out. They might put something in it.’ Because at one point they were putting something in you.”
This distrust in doctors and health care may have started back then but it lingers today. Implicit bias in health care is a real thing, with some health-care professionals buying into foolish notions such as that Black people perceive pain differently from whites — a misperception that can lead to undertreatment for pain and other situations, according to the National Academy for Sciences.
“You can’t discount hundreds of years of being dismissed, lack of empathy, people’s biases toward you. You can’t dismiss those feelings of not believing you were valued,” Stanford added. “You can’t dismiss that because there’s a disease and more Black people are dying and there’s a vaccine and you want Black people to take it. That doesn’t just go away. I believe you’ve got to give people time.”
Operation Warp Speed, as the effort to produce the vaccines is called, happened so fast. I took an informal poll of Black folks in my inner circle and most are cautious. “I’ll take it when I’m good and ready,” one told me. A friend who is bicoastal and caring for her parents said she’ll be vaccinated too — at some point. “Initially, I wasn’t going to because I don’t take a flu shot,” she said. “But this is so deadly.”
“Everybody has to weigh the risks and benefits,” Stanford said. “I said this to one of my nurses yesterday who pulled me aside and said, ‘Dr. Ala, what should I do?’ And I said: ‘You’re older. You’re overweight. You’re Black. You have some health conditions. You work in a hospital in a COVID ward and this is getting worse, not better.’ So, for her, I would say, ‘The risk is worth the benefit.’”
Last spring, Stanford began administering COVID tests in church parking lots and going to people’s homes because too many African Americans had been going without. She and the doctors who joined her filled an important void. They plan to do the same when it comes to getting Philadelphians vaccinated.
A lot of people, Black people in particular, will follow her lead. I know I will.