Vaccine Hesitancy in Communities of Color

The COVID-19 vaccination rate in the Black community lagged well behind that of Whites in the early vaccine rollout, but the gap has narrowed over time. Surveys show that COVID-19 vaccine acceptance increased faster among Black individuals than among White individuals since December 2020. A key factor seems to be that Black individuals more rapidly came to believe that vaccines were necessary to protect themselves and their communities.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 78% of the total population in the United States has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. While vaccination coverage increased in the first half of 2022, vaccination and booster uptake has leveled off and remains uneven across the country.

As of April 27, 2023, 58.7% of White Pennsylvanians have received at least one vaccine dose and 13.3% have received the bivalent booster, while 55.6% of African American Pennsylvanians have at least one dose and 6.8% have gotten the bivalent booster. In Lycoming County, 46.2% of Whites have at least one vaccine dose and 9.3% have received the bivalent booster, whereas 45.8% of Black people in the County have received at least one dose and 5.8% have gotten the bivalent booster.
Many in the media speculated that Black vaccination hesitancy was the result of fears based on historical health-related injustices like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In exchange for free care during the years 1932 to 1972, impoverished Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, many with syphilis, were denied informed consent, and they were not given effective treatments like penicillin that had become available. “Separate and unequal” also applies to the historical examples described below about how race and racism have dramatically impacted African Americans’ health outcomes.
1619 to 1730: Africans were enslaved and transported to the American colonies as property, receiving little to no medical treatment.
1742: Onesimus, a Boston enslaved person, told his owner, Cotton Mather, that he had become immune to smallpox by exposing himself to the bacteria of someone with smallpox through an open wound. Mather used this treatment in Massachusetts and saved 238 people. Although Onesimus advanced medical knowledge, he received terrible treatment as an enslaved person and was punished severely for not converting to Christianity.
1830s: Samuel George Morton wrote “Crania Americana,” in which he claimed that Black people had smaller skulls than White people and thus smaller brains.
Mid-1800s: James Marion Sims, “father of modern gynecology,” developed surgical techniques to help women through difficult childbirths by operating on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.
1861-1865: During the Civil War, the Union Army separated wounded Black soldiers into poorly staffed wards. Due to a lack of supplies and treatment, Black soldiers would die from wounds that White soldiers would recover from.
Using Black people for medical experiments continued into the 20th century, when Henrietta Lacks’ (1920-51) cancer cells were appropriated for research without her consent.
Black people’s historical experience of inequality and mistreatment plays a significant role in the mistrust of medicine today. It is hard to separate fear and doubt about past injustices from current concerns. Knowing the history, recalling their own unsatisfactory healthcare experiences, and hearing the testimony of others all contribute to mistrusting modern medicine and the “white coats” who practice it. It is not surprising that many Black people feared that the COVID-19 vaccines developed so quickly, compared to other vaccines, might be yet another experiment on people of color.
Institutions such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization have begun to recognize and address racial, ethnic, gender and other differences in medical science. They are making Black people safer than ever, even though there is still a long way to go.

Stronger oversight of medical research makes something as horrible as the Tuskegee Study unlikely today, but we still must recognize that wearers of “White coats” may bring racial bias and judgment to their work. Many Black Americans are still subject to biased perceptions from health professionals in the confines of an exam room, which can compromise care and perpetuate racial disparities. We must heed how patients feel when they detect such stereotyping and work to change caregivers’ implicitly biased judgment.
Taking an oath to become a doctor, nurse, or emergency responder should come from the human desire to heal the sick and broken-hearted compassionately. The patient’s color should not affect care. Doing no harm means making healthcare fair and equitable to all who seek it.

Cleveland Joseph Way has Master of Arts in Religion and Master of Divinity degrees and currently serves as the Pastor of Cogan House Community Church. He has twenty-two years of experience in the Human Service field and a passion for serving and helping individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency and self-worth. Cleveland is a member of Let’s end COVID!
Published: 5/6/23

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One thought on “Vaccine Hesitancy in Communities of Color

  1. It’s encouraging to see that the gap in COVID-19 vaccine acceptance between Black and White individuals is narrowing, and that Black individuals are recognizing the importance of vaccines to protect themselves and their communities. While there is still work to be done to ensure equitable access to vaccines, the efforts of institutions like the FDA and CDC to address racial disparities in medical science are a step in the right direction.

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