For Black and Latino families hit hard by the coronavirus, vaccine distrust runs high.
“We have been talking about this since April — the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color,” says Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “And this is an opportunity for us as a country to step up and not just acknowledge or shine a light on it but say, ‘What are we really going to do about that?’” (FRANCINE ORR / LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES)
SCHOOL OFFICIALS IN districts that enroll the majority of the country’s Black and Latino students, including many of the country’s big city school districts, are counting on the coronavirus vaccines to allow them to reopen safely for in-person learning — every day, for all students.
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But as states start administering the first vaccines in what’s expected to be a historic distribution campaign to inoculate hundreds of millions of Americans, pediatricians and school and public health officials have a major hurdle to overcome: how to convince vaccine-hesitant Black and Latino families — and especially Black parents who harbor a warranted distrust in the health care system and in immunizations specifically — that the vaccine is safe and effective and the gateway to reopening schools.
“Black people have every right to be suspicious of vaccinations,” says Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “We need to acknowledge that. Don’t put that off. We need to acknowledge that and then say, ‘OK, how do we get past that?’ because the Black community is disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They need to be in line for those vaccinations and they need to get them, so what are we doing as educators, as trusted voices in those communities, to work collaboratively with the community?”
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Though parent-specific polling is hard to come by — education organizations are just beginning that work now — the most recent surveys show a staggering lack of trust in the forthcoming vaccines among Black people. One Axios/Ipsis poll from Aug. 26 showed that just 28% of Black people planned to get the first-generation COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 51% of white people and 56% of Hispanic people.
That distrust is for good reason: In the 1930s, the U.S. government tricked hundreds of Black men with the promise of free health care, food and housing into becoming part of the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” — a secret experiment, of which the participants were never told, that withheld treatment in order to study how the deadly venereal disease spread. That distrust carries over to today, fueled in large part by the unequal medical treatment of black patients compared to white patients, a phenomenon that’s been well documented for decades.
“I always like to emphasize that this mistrust is earned,” says Patrice Harris, the first Black woman elected president of the American Medical Association, which she led until earlier this year. “Just as the mistrust has been earned, we can certainly go in and earn trust. But we have to make sure that it’s not a one-and-done proposition. There are issues in the past, but there are issues in the present, and we have to continue working in our community.”
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To be sure, nearly 10 months since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. and shuttered school districts across the country, about half of the nation’s 50 million public school students are still learning virtually or through a hybrid model that includes in-person learning two or three days per week.
But schools that enroll high percentages of Black and Latino students are much more likely to be all virtual than majority-white schools. And researchers are already amassing data about how that lack of in-person instruction and daily socialization is driving academic, social and emotional learning loss among Black and Latino students at a disproportionately high rate. A recent analysis by McKinsey & Company pegged that backward slide in math and reading at as much as 12 months.
That’s to say nothing of the economic, housing and food crises they’re more likely to suffer.
In many cases, their school districts aren’t closed solely because of high infection rates in their communities. They’re also closed because they lack the resources to provide personal protective equipment and sanitization for students, educators and staff, reconfigure classrooms to adhere to social distancing measures and repair poor ventilation systems — to name just a few of the biggest challenges to reopening for in-person learning.
And with Congress slow to provide a new round of relief despite a clarion call from education organizations who estimate schools need at least $175 billion to reopen safely, school and public health officials say their ability to cultivate trust in the vaccine among Black and Latino families is crucial to getting schools up and running for some of the country’s most vulnerable students who, when it’s all said and done, will have likely been set back the most by the pandemic.
“We have been talking about this since April — the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color,” Pringle says. “And this is an opportunity for us as a country to step up and not just acknowledge or shine a light on it but say, ‘What are we really going to do about that?’”
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“What are we doing right now?” Pringle asks. “How are we thinking about vaccination distribution as a campaign? What resources are we putting in any COVID-19 relief package that addresses that right now so that we are not doing it after the fact?”
Despite the paralysis in Washington during this lame-duck session, some members of Congress have been working on a plan for months already, including Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat, who has been urging Senate Republicans to agree to additional funding in the next coronavirus relief package to target communities that are home to people of color.
“What I’ve been pushing for is robust funding for the communities in the most crisis,” he says. “We need to make sure that states and local communities have the money to get the job done. Without that robust funding, I fear that some places will face the same hiccups and barriers we saw and still have with comprehensive testing. And we know these challenges that we face are most difficult when it comes to Black and brown communities and low-income and poor communities.”
Booker’s proposal would funnel money to grassroots, community-based organizations to expand ongoing efforts to eliminate inequity in COVID-19 health care outcomes, including vaccination campaigns by trusted, local organizations.
How a vaccine is introduced to the public is a crucial first-step to the success of building confidence and ultimately overcoming the disease it’s designed to ward off. Educating the public about how it was made, the science of how it works, possible side effects and the potential it has to positively impact day-to-day life builds confidence in a vaccine. And confidence leads to more people getting vaccinated, which ultimately leads to controlling the disease.
That’s why having visible people like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the scientific lead of the coronavirus vaccines team at the National Institutes of Health who worked with Moderna to develop its coronavirus vaccine that’s slated for FDA approval, and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the co-chairwoman of President-elect Joe Biden’s Advisory Board on Coronavirus, is so important.
[ READ: COVID Burden on Black Americans Creates Vaccine Quandary ]
During a town hall hosted Thursday by the NAACP, Corbett said that one of the most important ways that people of color should educate themselves and feel better about the vaccine is by asking candid questions of health care professionals who have taken it about their experience — how it felt, whether it hurt, whether they suffered any side effects.
“I think as these vaccines are rolling out, getting real-life experiences from people is probably the most important information,” she said.
In hindsight, Corbett adds, naming a vaccine development program “Warp Speed” may be working against the government in terms of getting buy-in from folks who are concerned with how quickly the vaccines are being developed and approved for emergency use authorization. In reality, the type of research that fueled many of the vaccinations coming to market has been ongoing for years, she says.
“Over the last six years we’ve been studying how to make the best and safe immune response to coronaviruses,” said Corbett. “There were all eyes on deck just as there were all hands on deck. I want people to realize that just because it has been rapid does not mean there has been any level of irresponsibility in regards to these developments.”
Of course, the challenge for pediatricians and school and public health officials in cultivating buy-in from Black families and other racial and ethnic minorities who may be more vaccine hesitant, isn’t simply rolling out a robust education campaign to build trust in its safety and efficacy — though that’s certainly part of it. The bigger barrier is repairing a deep and painful distrust that’s been sowed over generations — and for the coronavirus vaccinations in particular, a distrust that’s been acutely sharpened by a president who told the public not to be scared by the virus because it’s not a big deal and would disappear quickly, while saying otherwise privately.
As it stands, Black and Latino people are almost four times more likely to require hospitalization from a COVID-19 infection than white people and three times more likely to die, according to the CDC. As of mid-December, 1 in 800 Black people in the U.S. has died from the coronavirus, according to APM’s Research Lab, which aggregated mortality data from all available states and the District of Columbia.
[ MORE: CDC: Most Virus Cases in Kids Not From School ]
That’s why, Corbett said, it’s so important for people like her to be in powerful decision-making roles. Case in point, one of the things that jumped out to her during the phase one clinical trial for the Moderna vaccine was that only 4% of the people enrolled were Black.
“At that point, it became clear that if we were going to be able to tell people of color that the vaccine is safe and effective for them, then we needed to increase the representation of those people of color,” she said.
Later, when phase three trials were starting for the Moderna vaccine and the numbers of Black people enrolled were still not where Corbett and others wanted to see them — hovering around 6% of total enrollment instead of the 10% they had been aiming for — the CEO agreed to slow down enrollment in order to capture a better representation of people of color. And they did.
“Could it be better and match the population in the U.S. at 14%?” Corbett asked. “Yes. But what I want people to understand is that we are at least trying. And I also want people to understand that it is at no fault of yours that you do not trust a system that has done you and your ancestors wrong for hundreds of years.”
Corbett emphasized the importance of people of color being able to ask all the questions they need in order to feel secure about being vaccinated and that the only way to cultivate trust was for academic institutions and organizations like NAACP to host community events to meet families where they are.
“People are like, ‘Why does it matter that she’s Black?” Corbett says about her being the scientific lead of the coronavirus team at NIH. “It matters because I am getting invitations from everyone in the world right now, and I have said that I am absolutely not taking any invitations until you can tell me the community is invited.”
“That’s why it matters that we are embedded in the process,” she continued, “so that our work not only fuels the development of these vaccines and these treatments, but also so that our work shines so our community is just as informed as everyone else.”
As front-line health care workers and those living and working in long-term care facilities begin getting vaccinated, many are calling for educators and school staff to be next in line in order to put schools in a better position to reopen for in-person learning. It will likely take months to understand whether the collective efforts of Corbett, Booker, Pringle and so many others have generated confidence in the vaccines — or at least enough confidence to help swing open the school doors for the millions of Black and Latino students who are learning remotely and falling behind.
“If we don’t use this year to understand the social inequities built into systems throughout our society that interact and compound to grow those inequities,” Pringle says, “then we have done nothing to learn as a society about what we need to do to ensure our most vulnerable students and communities get what they need when they need it.”
Lauren Camera, Senior Education Writer
Lauren Camera is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. She joined the News team as an … READ MORE
Tags: coronavirus, vaccines, family, children, children’s health, students, education, pandemic, race, minority students, United States
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