The Truth About Race and Vaccine Resistance

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The problem with a broad sweeping term like “vaccine resistance” is that it ignores the life experience behind why certain people are, at least initially, skeptical about COVID vaccines and the process that produced them and reluctant to take them. For some, resistance is rooted in a deeply held political ideology, and their position is unlikely to budge.

For others, however, a decision not to get vaccinated right away is founded in justifiable skepticism about the equity and fairness of the healthcare system—and, importantly, in a number of practical considerations. For this group of people, vaccine hesitancy is the more accurate term. And as a recently released study of race and vaccines shows, the right mix of community outreach, education, and empathy can overcome that initial hesitancy.

A team at Ohio State University studied a group of 1200 individuals at the start of the vaccine rollout in December 2020. At that time, 38% of Black participants and 28% of white participants were hesitant to take the vaccine. By June of 2021, the percentage of hesitant Black participants fell by a dozen points, while the rate of hesitancy among white patients had largely remained the same.

Tasleem Padamsee, a health equity researcher, and the study’s lead author, says that community outreach was the key. It was important to partner with trusted community leaders and approach the situation with a judgment-free attitude. Padamsee’s working assumption was that initial hesitancy was motivated by a desire among Black residents to protect loved ones and their community and that this same desire would translate into a willingness to get the vaccine once more information was provided.

One big takeaway, the study concludes, is that “scholars, journalists, public health advocates, and government officials engaged in vaccine education might do well to continue to deploy protection-relevant messages, partner with trusted messengers from within Black communities, and presume that community members have genuine concerns for protecting their own health and that of their communities.”

The study also stresses that vaccine hesitancy can be complicated by very real practical considerations that can make it more difficult for African Americans and other minorities to actually get the vaccine. The study points to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that Black respondents are much more likely to be concerned about factors like having to miss time from work if the vaccine makes them sick or getting transportation to the vaccine site. Effective community outreach involves providing information and addressing access barriers.

Kaiser has found that, while some regional gaps persist, a roughly equal share of Black, Hispanic, and white adult populations had received at least one dose as of last September. The New York Times points out that another key to effective education and outreach is to acknowledge the history of racism in healthcare. An ad campaign by the Ad Council and the COVID Collaborative included a short documentary that featured descendants of men who had been involved in the infamous Tuskegee study, in which hundreds of Black men were denied treatment for syphilis even after it was established that penicillin was effective in treating the disease.

The progress made in overcoming vaccine hesitancy in the Black community confirms what those of us who advocate for vigorous community health programs have known all along: that communication, education, empathy, and active listening can produce dramatic results in addressing some of our nation’s most intractable health challenges.

Jerome Puryear

Dr. Jerome Puryear Jr., MD, MBA, is a Health and Well-being coach and renowned Obesity in Medicine expert. With a holistic perspective on patient care, Dr. JP is dedicated to helping individuals maximize their health and well-being.