Robert Luckey, the first person in the Houston region to get the coronavirus vaccine, is a registered nurse at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and is assigned to the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.
He is also Black.
Why does that matter? Because the image of Luckey rolling up the sleeve of his blue scrubs to get the shot may help convince folks in Black and Latino communities that the much-anticipated vaccines are safe.
Experience with a public health system that has often failed and abused people of color has sown a deep mistrust in those communities, even as COVID-19 ravages entire Black and Latino families and leaves others grappling with the economic fallout.
Unlike the baseless fear-mongering of the anti-vaxxer crowd, which reflexively rejects most vaccines, concerns in communities of color about this new vaccine are real and understandable and require special attention. Community leaders and public health officials must work fast and hard to build trust long fractured by historical trauma and mistreatment.
In the Black community, there is the still-vivid communal memory of horrors such as the Tuskegee Study, a 40-year secret experiment begun in 1932 by the U.S. government in which Black men with syphilis were told they were getting health care but were actually left untreated — given only placebos even as they developed blindness and other severe health issues — just so scientists could study the uninhibited progression of the disease.
There are regular interactions with doctors whose personal bias affects care and a growing body of research documenting how that bias leads doctors to discount the pain of Black people, including pregnant women and children, often leading to inadequate prescribing of pain medication. There is the palpable fear in Latino immigrant communities of any interaction with government officials, not to mention the recent reports of forced hysterectomies and other invasive surgeries performed on migrant women in U.S. detention centers.
It’s encouraging that polls this week show that as the vaccine is rolled out, more Americans are reporting they plan to take it. But there is still much work to do. A Pew Research Center survey in September found that 32 percent of Black adults would take a vaccine when available, compared with 52 percent of whites and 56 percent of Latinos. According to another survey by the Covid Collaborative, only 14 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Latinos believe a vaccine will be safe; 18 percent of Black Americans and 40 percent of Latinos think a vaccine will be effective.
There is reason for people of color to be skeptical of a vaccine that has raced through development and trials in record time, but there is also ample reason for folks in those communities to line up when the COVID-19 vaccine is ready for distribution.
Black people and Latinos are nearly three times more likely than whites to die of COVID-19.
But overcoming the deep-seated suspicion will require work.
It is not an impossible task. Childhood immunization rates, for example, in Black and Latino communities fall in line with overall rates. The Covid Collaborative survey also showed that Black Americans who believe they have a social responsibility to get vaccinated or who were surrounded by others who planned to get vaccinated were more likely to get one vaccine themselves.
But public health officials and politicians can’t just parachute in and expect communities long overlooked, mistreated and subjected to unethical experimentation to jump on board with COVID-19 vaccines. That will take commitment and compassion that should continue long after this crisis has passed.