Three COVID-19 vaccines are now going into arms across the United States – the best hope for an end to the pandemic that has devastated this country for more than a year. The virus ravaged some communities more than others, with the CDC reporting Blacks and Latinos have been at least twice as likely as Whites to die from COVID-19. Government officials promised vaccine distribution plans would address this inequity, but so far, the plans are failing.
The vaccination numbers in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report were alarming. Latinos make up 40 percent of the California population, but only account for 18 percent of those vaccinated. Blacks make up five percent of the state population, but only account for three percent of those vaccinated. Turning those numbers around is going to require everyone to get on the same page about the vaccination message, but misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines is already spreading.
Some people wrongly believe they can get COVID-19 from the vaccination, when the reality is there is no live virus in any of the vaccines. Others fear the side effects of the vaccine are worse than the virus, when the reality is side effects during the trials were generally mild and went away after a day or two. In a very few cases, there were severe allergic reactions, and anyone with severe allergies is advised to speak with their doctor prior to getting the vaccine. Others believe the vaccines were developed too quickly to be safe or effective, but the FDA ensured the rigorous clinical trials met all safety standards.
Still, a December Pew Research Center survey found that, while 71 percent of Black Americans knew someone who had been hospitalized or died of COVID-19, only 42 percent would get a vaccine. A report from UnidosUS, the NAACP, and the COVID Collaborative in the fall found that 52 percent of Latinos knew someone who was hospitalized or died from COVID-19, but only 34 percent trusted that the vaccine was safe, while only 40 percent believed it was effective.
Of course, some of this vaccine hesitancy can be traced to a general distrust of medical studies due to a history of racially-motivated mistreatment and unethical health care research, like the Tuskegee syphilis study. We know the mistrust exists, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and accept the terrible vaccination numbers in communities of color. Health officials and other trusted sources at every level can play a role as we work to get back to some sense of normal.
Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. That means we have to remove obstacles to good health. While those obstacles usually include things like housing, income security, and food security, in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, the major obstacles are misinformation and fear. Doctors and other trusted health care professionals have to spread the word that the vaccines are safe and effective and the best way to keep you and your loved ones healthy.
Messaging is just part of the strategy to get more vaccines into the arms of people of color. It’s also going to take a robust effort by those distributing the vaccines to get the vaccines into these communities. They must take the vaccines to them – their clinics, their resource centers, their doctor’s offices. In fact, L.A. Care is planning to host vaccine clinics in the communities it serves later this month. Access and trust are critical. We can’t leave anyone behind as we begin to dig out of this health crisis.
James Kyle, MD is medical director for quality, diversity, equity and inclusion for L.A. Care Health Plan.
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