Minority Health Institute addresses discrimination, vaccine concerns

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The Minority Health Institute and UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy addressed the concerns minority groups have about the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 16 in a virtual town hall meeting.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, some people in minority communities are skeptical about taking it, particularly those in African-American communities.

According to an Axios poll conducted in November, only 14 percent of Black adults trust the safety of the vaccine.

Health experts and members of Black-led organizations discussed several topics intending to address communities of color about racism in healthcare systems, health equity, myths concerning the COVID-19 vaccine and what people and organizations can do to help end the current health crisis.

Structural Racism and Distrust 

People in communities of color are among the most affected by the pandemic, and panelists in the meeting said that racism in medical institutions are an obstacle for convincing people of color to get vaccinated.

“There’s a reason that only 14 percent of Black folks trust this vaccine,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles Chapter of Black Lives Matter. “It’s not just the historic conditions that have led us to point. It’s the current treatment of Black people by health systems and other systems. We think about the death of Susan Moore, who was mistreated and left to die even as a medical doctor.”

Abdullah said that mistreatment of people of color from medical institutions has led to the distrust of health systems in African-American communities, and has encouraged members of the communities to challenge systems in order to restore that trust.

“What I’m here to push and challenge is not for Black people to trust systems more, but to challenge systems, including systems you are a part of, to actually be trustworthy.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also highlights the impact of discrimination on minority groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Health Equity Officer for COVID-19 Response Leandris Liburd participated in the virtual town hall meeting and presented information from the CDC on how discrimination affects minority groups and their health.

“Discrimination, including racism, can lead to chronic and toxic stress and shapes social and economic factors putting some people from racial and economic minority groups at increased risk for COVID-19,” said Liburd.

Liburd says the CDC has been trying to achieve racial equity, but doing so would require help from other organizations and the communities themselves.

“It goes without saying that we cannot achieve health equity alone. It’s going to require that we work together with community-based organizations, employers, health agencies and local governments,” said Liburd.

Another participant in the meeting was U.S. Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy, who previously served as surgeon general during Barack Obama’s administration and led the response to the Zika and Ebola virus outbreaks.

Murthy stressed the importance of trust from the public during a response to any outbreak.

“In a pandemic response, public trust is your greatest asset,” said Murthy. “If you don’t have that, everything else becomes hard.”

COVID Vaccine Info and Concerns

The virtual town hall meeting addressed information about the vaccine to the community, as well as any concerns people may have about getting vaccinated.

Vaccine Research Center Scientific Lead Kizzmekia Corbett illustrated a presentation showing data about the Moderna vaccine in its phase three clinical trials.

Corbett leads the center’s coronavirus vaccine team and says volunteers are monitored for side effects, referred to as adverse events.

“Safety is monitored very strictly in these people by soliciting adverse events, and if anything happens they come back to their trial physician and they get monitored for that particular adverse event,” said Corbett.

The presentation illustrated that side effects have occurred after taking the vaccine, but Corbett said that this is common and doesn’t pose a health threat.

“It’s important to note that things being judged during these phase three clinical trials are really very common things when you get a vaccine,” said Corbett. “You might get pain in your injection site and even fever or headaches after your second dose, but there are no adverse fertility effects or deaths reported from these vaccines.”

She also recognized that there have been allergic reactions from the vaccine, but emphasized that the number of people having these reactions pales in comparison with those who don’t.

“There are some allergic reactions in people that have had serious allergic reactions in the past, but those numbers are abysmal,” said Corbett “There’s about 30 to 35 people who’ve had allergic reactions both from Pfizer and Moderna candidates combined, but the vaccines are continuing to look safe.”  

Convincing Communities to vaccinate

Transparency and education was also highlighted by the panelists as an important principle in leading communities out of the pandemic.

President of Howard University Wayne Fredrick says that educational institutions must teach their students with the truth about historical events.

As an example, Fredrick highlighted how most African-Americans are unable to recall the events of the Tuskegee Experiment, a study conducted in Alabama by the United States Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 which analyzed the effects of untreated syphilis in African-Americans.

“There have been significant things that have happened to African-Americans and Tuskegee is an example,” said Fredrick. “However, if you ask the average African-American about the details of that, they will not be able to articulate the full details of that. The mistrust that we have is an institutional mistrust. As a result it also gets applied to what has happened in the past.”

 To gain trust from the communities, Fredrick says transparency from schools is a must.

“One of the things that I believe that our educational institutions must do is to tell the truth about what has happened and be transparent,” said Fredrick. “It is a difficult truth but I think the more transparent we are and the more we educate our community, especially on how things have changed today, the more we can begin to build trust. Ignoring the past and not coming to some reconciliation with it has hurt us as we try to move forward.”