Linda Lewis-Everett personally knows 10 people who have died as a result of COVID-19. Still, she said she won’t choose to be vaccinated when a vaccine is available.
“That shows how much distrust I have,” she said.
There are two reasons for that. Lewis-Everett, an Indiana delegate at the Democratic National Convention, is skeptical of President Donald Trump’s administration when it comes to quickly developing a vaccine that is both effective and doesn’t have harsh side effects. Plus, she’s a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when media and Congress began uncovering the truth behind the Tuskegee Experiment.
“We’ve had that ingrained in us that we are the guinea pigs of the society,” Lewis-Everett said.
New vaccines usually take years to develop, but governments have been trying to speed up the process for a COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed” aims to have 300 million doses available by January 2021, while other estimates for vaccines look farther into the year.
There’s also the possibility that more than one vaccine becomes available, as dozens of other research groups look to begin clinical trials by the end of 2021. In that case, it’s conceivable that later vaccines will be more effective than the first.
Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said waiting for later vaccines could be a reasonable position if it turns out the first vaccines don’t meet optimal study metrics, including a representative trial of at least 30,000 people.
“We have to watch and monitor this,” she said. “We have to see and know no shortcuts are being taken and that the proper safety pieces have been put in place.”
Lewis-Everett, who said she might reconsider her options if and when more vaccines are available later, is far from alone in her skepticism.
In an NPR-PBS News Hour-Marist poll released in August, 44% of Black respondents said they would not choose to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and 48% said they would. Eight percent were unsure. The numbers were almost the same for Latinos. Overall, 35% of respondents said they would not choose to be vaccinated.
Some went to social media to express disbelief or outrage that more than a third of people report they won’t take a COVID-19 vaccine, but they apparently don’t recognize the long and troubled history of racism that plays into the distrust many African Americans have for medical professionals and the government.
Aside from the Tuskegee Experiment, there was Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year-old African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died, doctors took samples of her cancer cells — now called HeLa cells — and used them for research, but they never received Lacks’ permission.
A more recent example is an algorithm used widely in U.S. hospitals to allocate health care to patients that was found in 2019 to give lower risk scores to people who identified as Black, underestimating their needs and leading to fewer referrals for care.
Jarnell Burks-Craig, board president of Minority Health Coalition of Marion County, said the organization will advocate for people to get vaccinated when a vaccine is available.
The coalition has been working with the county health department at COVID-19 testing sites, and Burks-Craig said she hasn’t noticed a lack of participation from African Americans, which she hopes translates to willingness to get a vaccine.
About 20% of COVID-19 tests in Marion County have gone to those identifying as Black or African American, according to data from the state health department, but African Americans account for about 30% of the county population, and African Americans have been among the hardest hit by the virus.
Burks-Craig is also counting on African Americans to trust Caine, who, along with being the top county health official, is a Black woman.
“It’s the person that is delivering the message is what the general population will look at,” she said.
Caine knows she likely carries more credibility for African Americans than a white man, for example, would in her position.
But Caine is still concerned vaccination rates will be too low among African Americans. Plus, she warned that the fall season could be a “double whammy” because of the flu, which could compound complications related to COVID-19 and lead to an increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.