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Coronavirus

Black St. Louis Doctors Address Vaccine Fears To Help Save Black Lives From The Virus

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Andrea Y. Henderson
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Kanika Turner is a family medicine doctor at Family Care Health Centers. She understands the fears Black people have about the coronavirus vaccine and its side effects, but she would rather be "OK with the side effects and be alive than to die from COVID-19.”

When Dr. Kanika Turner talks to her Black patients about how they can protect themselves from the coronavirus, many do not ask about the vaccine. She often has to mention it.

Many Black people don't trust the health care system because of the way it has long mistreated African Americans, Turner said. So when she meets with them in her South St. Louis office, she makes sure to listen to their concerns. Turner then tries to answer her patients' questions and build trust with those who do not have confidence in the nation’s medical system, given its history of racist practices.

Black doctors in the St. Louis region are trying to debunk false information by talking about the vaccine with their African American patients and to Black church congregations and other organizations. Doctors fear that if not enough Black people take the vaccine, their communities will continue to suffer with more hospitalizations and deaths.

“It's up to us as Black physicians, Black scientists on the front line to talk to the community about this, to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that's associated with this,” said Turner, a family medicine doctor at Family Care Health Centers.

A legacy of racism in the medical system

Many African Americans relate their distrust in the medical system to the mid 1930s Tuskegee Institute trials, where for decades doctors studying syphilis withheld adequate treatment from hundreds of Black men so the doctors could observe the disease.

To regain that trust, Turner acknowledges the racism and apologizes for the role the medical system has played. She wants Black patients to be informed about the coronavirus and understand that the vaccine can save lives in Black communities, where Black people are dying at disproportionate rates from the virus.

But those arguments have not swayed Florissant resident Rika Tyler. She does not plan to get the vaccine because she is worried about its side effects and because of how fast the vaccine was produced.

“I'm not saying that it won't be safe for Black people because vaccines have stopped with past viruses, but the historical aspect is just the distrust that Black people have with the health care system,” Tyler said. “And then just the unresolved issues of that is what needs to be discussed.”

She’s fearful of a medical system that does not have enough Black providers.

Black doctors connect with patients

In 2015, Dr. Ashley Denmark started the organization Project Diversify Medicine to address the shortage of Black medical providers. The online platform gives advice to people of color who are interested in medicine.

Denmark, who practices family medicine at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, makes a point to connect with her Black patients on a cultural level, because she knows how important it is to have a Black doctor.

“A lot of times Black doctors are here to try to reestablish or reimagine this relationship we've been having with the health care system,” Denmark said.

According to American College of Physicians only 5% of physicians in the U.S. are African American. Denmark uses her organization’s Instagram account to highlight the work of Black doctors and other health care professionals. Nearly 50,000 followers can view videos and photos of Black health care workers receiving the vaccine.

‘Get everyone on board’

Turner also discussed the vaccine on podcasts, at virtual town halls and even virtually discussing it at Black church services. But she said the Black community needs all of its leaders on board to get the word out that the vaccine is safe.

“It's really, really important that we get everyone on board, not just Black physicians, Black leaders,” Turner said. “But also we need our pastors. We need our Black lawyers, Black business owners, barbers and beauticians. We need them.”

During Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis’ conversations with her Black patients, she also acknowledges the past trauma and focuses on how severely the Black community has been affected by the virus.

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Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis
Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis received her first round of the Pfizer vaccine last month. She believes the vaccine is safe and can decrease the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Hlatshwayo Davis understands why some Black people are hesitant to take the vaccine, but the infectious disease specialist said Black people are putting themselves at risk if they do not take it.

“The risk is that they will continue to have a higher risk of contracting and subsequently and possibly dying from coronavirus, and that's as simply as I can put it,” said Hlatshwayo Davis, a member of the St. Louis Board of Health. “You decrease your risk if you take this vaccine. We have seen incredible numbers come out of these studies that have been going on for the past couple of months, and so this really is something that will help our community.”

She is worried that if African Americans do not demand the vaccine their community won’t be considered a priority.

“We've talked a lot about vaccine hesitancy, but at the same time, there's a lot of Black and brown people that want this vaccine,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “And it's important that we have transparent allocation and distribution policies,”

Some Black people are heeding the warnings. They include North St. Louis resident Annetta Booth, who recently registered for the vaccine. She said it is the Black community's only defense against the virus.

“I know what happened in the past, but you see everyday different people that has taken it and nothing has happened to them drastically,” Booth said. “I can’t see any reason why the African American community would not take it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what occurred during the Tuskegee Institute Trials.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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