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Coronavirus

St. Louis Health Officials Face An Uphill Battle To Persuade Black People To Get The COVID-19 Vaccine

St. Louis area health officials worry that if African Americans do not take the coronavirus vaccine, then the Black community will continue to be disproportionately affected by the virus.
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St. Louis area health officials worry that if African Americans do not take the coronavirus vaccine, then the Black community will continue to be disproportionately affected by the virus.

As the federal government prepares to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, St. Louis-area health officials and doctors worry that some African Americans may not get vaccinated because they do not trust the health care system.

African Americans suffer from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates than other groups, but some fear that a system that has not made saving Black lives a priority may put them in jeopardy, said Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University.

Given those fears, the region’s health officials must effectively inform communities that the vaccine will save lives and help keep the coronavirus from spreading, she said.

“The risk is that they will continue to have a higher risk of contracting and possibly dying from coronavirus, and that's as simply as I can put it,” said Hlatshwayo Davis, who is also a newly appointed member of the St. Louis Board of Health. “You decrease your risk if you take the vaccine.”

African Americans have long experienced racism in doctor’s offices and hospitals. Medical researchers often made them unknowing test subjects for medical experiments that often led to other diseases or death.

In the 1930s, white doctors conducted experiments on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, to see how syphilis spreads. But they did not tell Black patients they had syphilis and did not treat them for it. In 1951, Johns Hopkins Hospital used Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells for medical research without her consent. Given that history, it is understandable that some Black people would be wary of the medical establishment, Hlatshwayo Davis said.

But doctors say they hope Black people can put aside their distrust and take the vaccine.

“We are way more likely to become sick from COVID-19, and we are dying at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups. And this can no longer happen,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “We have seen this time and time again in other illnesses. It is because of existing racial disparities in medicine. But in the short term, it's important because we deserve to not only live, but to live lives that are full lives, healthy lives.”

But health officials have work to do to convince some that the vaccine is safe and effective.

Rika Tyler, a Harris-Stowe State University senior, said she will not get the vaccine. Tyler is skeptical about the vaccine because she thinks the federal government rushed its development.

“I don't know if they're following all the protocols and measures, and to me, it seems like they're just trying to shorten their study,” she said.

Tyler said she doesn’t have faith in the medical system because of the way Black people have been treated in the past.

“I live in Florissant. It's a hot spot, and we as Black people are still dying disproportionately from this virus," Tyler said. "And so rightfully so, the systems in place, it just don't deserve the trust of us."

Hlatshwayo Davis said regional health officials must work with community organizations to help African Americans understand the importance of the vaccine.

The St. Louis Regional Health Commission is preparing to take that message to Black communities to help calm fears of the vaccine, said CEO Angela Brown.

“A lot of what people are feeling of this distrust of the system is still new, and it's still happening. And so we begin to target our communications to say, “Yes, that is, but this is to help you. This could help your family,'” Brown said.

Both Brown and Hlatshwayo Davis said the medical community must acknowledge systemic racism within health care to gain the trust of Black Americans.

Hlatshwayo Davis also Black health care professionals will play a vital role in helping Black people understand the importance of the vaccine.

“I think it's important for my community to hear from me and hear why I feel like this would be something that would benefit their health and the health of their families,” Hlatshwayo Davis said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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