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Education must happen before vaccination

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With COVID-19 limiting gatherings, the Westside Community Development Corp. had to get creative for a recent wellness event.

So, it hosted a Health and Wealth virtual broadcast to provide information on public health topics, including the vaccines. There were discussions with representatives from organizations such as local health departments, as well as live music performances.

“So, it was truly an event,” said Brittany Crone, a community health worker with Westside CDC. “Whereas we would love to do this in person, we can’t right now. And so we tried to make it as entertaining and informative, and relevant as possible as we can.”

She said the event also had a broader purpose. “We really wanted to emphasize the ways that we believe can empower our community, specifically, our residents in the near westside — and our Black community in the near westside as well.”

Crone says her job is to build relationships with community members and connect them with health resources. That’s especially important when addressing the pandemic. 

A December study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35% of Black adults in America were reluctant to get a COVID vaccine. In Indianapolis, only 19% of Black residents age 70 and older have received the vaccine, officials said on Feb. 11; that’s compared to 32% of whites in that age group.

Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine acknowledges the challenge of reaching minority communities where many are hesitant to get a vaccine.

“So I think you have to tell people, give them a history, you have to educate them,” she said. “But you have to take their concerns very seriously. And you have to address it. 

“And you have to provide as much education as you can. And we need trusted community leaders out there, doing that outreach, talking about the importance and benefit of this vaccine.”

Caine adds sometimes it just takes patience. “People like to observe, they want to see someone get the vaccine and know, someone they know, close up and personal did all right with it.”

Ross Silverman, a health law and policy professor at Indiana University, said some members of the Black community have a mistrust of the medical system. 

“You know, there’s a long distance between some people in trust, based on experience, personal experiences, as well as history,” he says. “And so we have to respect that.”

Silverman, who sits on a committee that advises officials on the vaccine rollout plan, said some of that mistrust comes from systemic racism in the medical field. That includes the infamous Tuskegee experiment, which denied penicillin treatments to syphilis patients.  

He added, “We can tell you, ‘When the vaccine becomes available, I’m gonna get it, my family’s gonna get it.’ And we need to make sure that folks hear from people that they similarly trust, that are going to come to the same conclusion.”

In Indiana, the Red Cross has created a coalition aimed at combating vaccine hesitancy in minority communities. 

“I think in the minority community, especially in Black and Latinx communities, the hesitancy stems from hundreds of years of oppression from the medical system and from the government,” says Chad Priest, CEO of the American Red Cross Indiana. “And that hesitancy is passed down from generation to generation and reinforced in lots of ways.”

Priest said to overcome vaccine hesitancy, trust needs to be regained. And that is “a much more difficult proposition that requires a very different approach than simply telling someone, ‘Hey, you should take the vaccine.’” 

The American Red Cross is working with organizations, including religious groups and nonprofits, that are already grounded in communities. Priest said they can engage in community conversations that “allow people to get through the vaccine decision-making process in a way that respects their autonomy and encourages them to access the best and most factual information available.”

By partnering with these community organizations, the coalition aims to create a safe space for people to come with questions and concerns. They’re hosting forums, events and listening sessions to connect with residents. 

“I think sometimes we rush to educate,” Priest says. “And I think that is problematic for a lot of reasons, including that it denies the history and lived experience of our neighbors.

“The reality is most people are going to get vaccinated. The question is when and how do we accelerate the trust and comfort of our Black and Latinx neighbors who are shouldering a disproportionate burden of the disease?”

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