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More African Americans say they’ll take the coronavirus vaccine, new survey finds

KFF poll finds 62% of Black people say they’ll get vaccinated, up sharply from the number in September

With the first doses of a newly approved coronavirus vaccine being administered, in some cases live on television or social media, a new survey finds increasing numbers of African Americans now saying they’ll get it.

A December poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) COVID vaccine monitor project found that 62% of African Americans say they will probably or definitely get vaccinated against COVID-19. That represents a dramatic jump in confidence from a September survey on race and health KFF conducted with The Undefeated, which found only 50% of African Americans who expressed the same willingness to get vaccinated. Overall, the new poll found 71% of Americans now plan to get vaccinated, up from 63% in September.

The U.S. death toll from the virus tops 300,000, a disproportionate number of them African Americans, and public health experts say that’s among the many reasons for the increased willingness by African Americans to be vaccinated. A two-dose vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which was granted emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11, began being administered to front-line health care workers on Monday. Vaccines developed by other companies will likely be approved soon, and vaccinations are scheduled to take place in successive waves throughout the year.

But experts caution that much work has to be done to get Black communities to trust the vaccine and increase the numbers of those willing to be vaccinated. And they cite the past as prologue.

Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, attributes the increase in vaccine confidence to several factors, including widespread, detailed efforts to educate African Americans. It’s important that those “who have been carrying the message have been trusted intermediaries,” said Tuckson, and he cites the efforts by Black health professionals as a critical part of those conversations. “The vaccine is now available within the context of an out of control pandemic that is affecting them so greatly is another variable in all of this that has led to more acceptance,” he said.

Michelle Chester draws the COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at Long Island Jewish Medical Center on Dec. 14 in Queens, New York. The rollout of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, ushers in the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history.

Mark Lennihan-Pool/Getty Images

Other reasons speak to the long history of medical racism in America, as well as the mixed messaging about COVID-19 coming from prominent leaders. “I think that people are beginning also to realize that we, as people of color, are not being put up as guinea pigs, and that in fact health workers are going to be the first to receive it,” Tuckson said. “One of the other elements is that I think that the Biden-Harris election takes away some of the negative politicization that has tainted the vaccine from the Trump administration.”

The vaccination of Sandra Lindsay, a Black critical care nurse at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, was livestreamed and broadcast on television Monday. “It didn’t feel any different from taking any other vaccine,” Lindsay, the first American to get the coronavirus vaccine, told New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was watching. “I’m feeling well,” Lindsay said. “I feel hopeful today, relieved. I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning to the end of the very painful time in our history. I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe. We’re in a pandemic, so we all need to do our parts.”

Those kinds of optics help move the needle in terms of vaccine acceptance, said C. Daniel Mullins, a department chair at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy who is working on an FDA-funded project on COVID-19 testing in underrepresented populations. But decisions about vaccines are hyperlocal, and rely on advice from trusted sources, said Mullins.

“It helps to show people of color who are health care providers and researchers administering the vaccine, and showing that was a safe administration,” Mullins said. “But I think at the local level, we’re going to still see slower [vaccine] uptake until local leaders and local health care providers are convinced that they can recommend it. And I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The KFF survey found that among the 35% of African Americans who say they definitely or probably will not get vaccinated, about half percent distrust vaccines in general, and half are worried the vaccine will give them COVID-19.

LaShawn Scott receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the University of Louisville Hospital on Dec. 14. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine became available for specified use on Monday morning to five hospital staff members.

Jon Cherry/Getty Images

It’s a kind of pernicious, omnipresent mistrust that requires more than just data to change minds. One pastor Mullins worked with told him, “I want to know how is it that you can develop a vaccine for COVID-19 in nine months, but we still don’t have one for HIV and AIDS. I want an answer to that question before I trust the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“So that kind of discussion, I don’t think is taking place,” said Mullins. Other people are wondering what’s going to happen with all the money pharmaceutical companies are making.

They are the kinds of questions that fall into a larger bucket of suspicion — some of which can be allayed by facts and research numbers, but others of which go to intent, and speak to a history of bad faith toward Black people.

Tuckson said public health leaders must continue explaining the worldwide vaccine effort, and that coronaviruses had already been decoded, so “people won’t be thinking that we did all of this from a standing start.” He said he’d had two conversations with pharmaceutical companies Monday in which they pledged to do a better job partnering with Black health and community-based organizations.

Finally, conversations have to be had between Black health service organizations and health policy leaders to figure out how to do a better job of countering that mistrust of the health system. “We cannot go through this anymore,” said Tuckson, who wrote a recent editorial on “The Disease of Distrust” in Science magazine.

“Hell, when I was health commissioner in the District of Columbia in the middle ’80s at the height of the HIV epidemic, the No. 1 issue that was in front of me as a rate limiting step was the Tuskegee experience, and now in 2020, 40 years later, a rate limiting step in fighting this pandemic is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. How is it possible that the health care enterprise, the research enterprise, the clinical systems and policy systems have done nothing to eliminate that issue after 40 years? We have got to change the paradigm here and it is the responsibility of all elements of the science enterprise to fix that.

“As one of the community leaders mentioned in a town hall that we had the other day, if we keep looking to the past, we will die in the future.”

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.