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Doctors battle Black Miamians’ concern over vaccine

Despite the virus’ disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, a mid-November poll showed that just 42 percent of African Americans would get vaccinated.
Medical professionals in Miami are trying to persuade people in the Black community that the coronavirus vaccine is safe and important.
Medical professionals in Miami are trying to persuade people in the Black community that the coronavirus vaccine is safe and important. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Dec. 27, 2020

MIAMI — Days before taking the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Inaki Bent made a decision.

He was tired of the nonstop misinformation passing between relatives. Tired of watching coronavirus decimate the Black community. Tired of the anti-maskers. Just tired.

So Bent resolved to livestream his vaccination. The Facebook Live session lasted less than an hour, while the 40-year-old Jackson Health doctor receiving the shot, resting for the 15-minute waiting period and answering viewers’ questions.

“COVID-19 has absolutely consumed my life and this is the first step towards normalcy,” Bent, a Miami native and son of Haitian immigrants, said on Tuesday’s livestream.

Bent is one of several doctors and organizations reaching out to Black South Floridians, encouraging them to sign up for the vaccine. Despite the virus’ disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, a mid-November Pew Research poll showed that just 42 percent of African Americans would get vaccinated. That figure falls significantly behind their white, Hispanic and English-speaking Asian counterparts, who measure at 62 percent, 63 percent and 83 percent respectively.

Nationwide, Black Americans attribute their reluctance to the nation’s racist history and lack of faith in government institutions. Here in Miami-Dade, home to one of the nation’s most diverse Black populations, doctors say face the same suspicions, even if the histories are sometimes different.

“There’s some really bad actors that are playing on that vulnerability,” said Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of general internal medicine at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine

Adding to intentional disinformation campaigns is a lack of regular access to healthcare. Roughly 26% of Black adults in Miami-Dade are uninsured — more than double the national average of 12% — leading to a lack of comfort that only worsens the situation, says Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine professor Dr. Cheryl Holder.

“You’ve got to be regularly in a (primary care doctor’s) system and see that system demonstrate care, demonstrate improvement overall and then you build trust,” Holder said. A Jamaican-American, she considers the Black community’s hesitancy a “healthy response” considering the history.

‘Look at the risk, benefits and alternatives’

For American-born Blacks, that history centers on the Tuskegee Study, a series of medical experiments on African Americans that lasted 40 years.

The experimentation began in 1932 with the U.S. Public Health Service administering “medical treatment” to more than 300 Black men with syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala. In actuality, they received placebos so that scientists could document the long term effects of the disease. The study ended only after The Associated Press published an expose in 1972.

Charles McCoy, 72, still remembers his first time hearing about the study. It came his way by word of mouth — Black history wasn’t really taught in school — and the news left him “astonished,” he said.

“A lot of (African Americans) at the time were illiterate and uneducated people, so they had no idea what kind of medical experiments were going on in their body,” continued McCoy, a retired Miami-Dade public school teacher.

The abuse did not begin or end in Tuskegee. In the 1840s, James Marion Sims performed gynecological surgeries on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. In 1951, a Black Virginia tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks submitted cells for a biopsy that were later stolen and replicated for research. As recently as the 1990s, vaccines for measles were tested on Black and Latino babies without disclosure of an associated high infant mortality rate.

The Caribbean has a history of similar experimentation on slaves. Just as critical, say Blacks of Caribbean decent, is the fact that the vaccine developed was under a president who referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”

“The political climate has a big influence on the reluctance and hesitancy of many of my patients and family members,” Bent said.

McCoy says he’s willing to consult with his doctor before making a final decision — the kind of conversation that Holder says is key.

“We want (people) to have all the knowledge, so that (they) can then make the choice looking at the risk, looking at the benefits and the alternatives and making the best decision,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons Holder created Keeping The Faith, a campaign that seeks to better educate Black Miamians about coronavirus by working with churches in Little Haiti, Liberty City and other areas ravaged by the disease. About 30 ministries have participated in various aspects of the initiative, which has sponsored expert-led Zoom informational sessions and COVID testing sites where patients get paired with Black nurses.

Trustworthy messengers need to be utilized during these times and “the only place that can consistently reach that population right now is the churches,” Holder said.

In November, Career Source South Florida joined forces with the Neighbors And Neighbors Association to create an outreach team that goes door-to-door passing out personal protective equipment in the Zip codes with the highest rates of the disease.

Many of those residents are predisposed to wariness.

“A lot of people don’t trust the government (here),” said outreach specialist Robert Jones.

To combat that skepticism, the team hands out a coronavirus educational booklet along with masks, hand sanitizer and a survey that includes questions about how the disease has impacted their daily lives. The answers are then entered into a database to see how NANA can better assist those in need.

A trail of enthusiastic greetings and wide grins follows the group wherever they go.

“Most individuals are just thrilled to see someone handing PPE, to see that someone is interested in their well-being,” Calvin Wyche said Wednesday while taking a break from making deliveries in Brownsville. Raising awareness in these areas is key “because a lot of our people in these communities aren’t informed.”

In the future, a vaccine question may be added to the survey. But for now, the goal is to ensure that people know how to protect themselves.

“I don’t think that’s our role (to tell people to take the vaccine),” CSSF executive director Rick Beasley said. “Our role is providing them resources to make the decision that’s best for their family.”

UM’s Carrasquillo, who also works as principal investigator in Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine trial, believes these types of outreach efforts play a significant role in reducing suspicion among minorities. Through conversations with community leaders, he’s been able to debunk myths while ensuring representation in his own vaccine trials. About 50% of those in his story are Latino; about 15% are Black.

While some of the questions about the vaccine’s rushed timeline and safety are valid, “we have to debunk the crazies,” Carrasquillo said. “... Please don’t get your health information from your brother-in-law’s cousin’s friend’s website or Facebook post. That is not an authoritative medical source.”

‘Sometimes, leading is scary’

A recent Keeping The Faith virtual session directly addressed vaccine hesitancy. Medical experts Dr. Linda Washington-Brown and Dr. Aileen Marty talked about how COVID affects the body, and the importance of the vaccination. Audience members asked about Bell’s palsy, a temporary facial paralysis associated with the trials, and how allergies could interact with the vaccine.

Only about one-tenth of one percent of those in the COVID vaccine trials were affected with Bell’s palsy, the audience was told. Those with a history of anaphylaxis should consult a doctor before being vaccinated.

“You have to move all the stereotypes, move all the fallacies. You have to look at what’s happening,” Brown said. “You don’t want to die from COVID when you have a vaccine.”

While the session didn’t completely quell the hesitancy, some viewers did grow more confident about the vaccine. One of them was Faith Community Baptist Church Pastor Richard Dunn, who said that he’s willing to lead by example.

“Sometimes leading is scary,” Dunn, who admitted to having survived COVID, told the group. “... The underlying thing is, we have to have faith.”

Moments like that give Holder hope.

“If he can show by example how it should be then it will continue in the rest of the community,” she said.

Bent, too, said he intends to keep encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. His livestream has been viewed more than 500 times; its comment section featured several congratulatory messages.

He also plans to give daily updates on his condition. “No tail or horns yet,” Bent joked.

Still, he worries about not being able to reach those close to him. Though Bent and his wife Yashica agreed to vaccinate themselves as well as their four children, not even his own mother could be convinced.

“I feel like a soldier who’s fighting a very difficult war to save his people,” Bent said.

- C. Isaiah Smalls II

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