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What physicians have to say about COVID-19 vaccinations in Black communities

Ngozi Alia | 12/11/2020, 6 a.m.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that African Americans are disproportionately impacted and twice as likely ...
Dr. Melvin Ego-Osuala (L) & Dr. Risha Irvin (R) Courtesy Photo

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that African Americans are disproportionately impacted and twice as likely to die from the coronavirus. In Maryland, over sixty percent of residents are Black in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, and Prince George’s County leads Maryland with the most known COVID-19 cases.

There has been a call for action to support minority groups that are heavily impacted by the coronavirus on local and national levels.

Earlier in the year, the COVID-19 Consortium submitted a proposal to Governor Larry Hogan addressing the health inequalities of COVID-19 in African American and Hispanic communities in Maryland. The COVID-19 Consortium is comprised six different organizations, including: Westat Incorporation; National Medical Association; National Hispanic Medical Association; National Association of Community Health Centers; The University of Maryland Center for Health Equity; and The National Black Church Initiative.

The 68-page draft of Maryland’s vaccination plan prioritizes vaccinations for healthcare frontline and essential workers, and people with increased risk to COVID-19. The plan also notes that under vaccine priority groups, “current surveys indicate a high degree of vaccine hesitancy.”

Vaccine hesitancy in African American populations seems to be prevalent, according to healthcare professionals. Dr. Melvin Ego-Osuala, a pediatrician at Edge Pediatrics in Greenbelt, Md. say that even though he has not started to get questions or concerns about COVID-19 vaccines yet, he anticipates a heightened level of apprehension from Black parents about them for their children.

“Most parents will approach this like the flu vaccine, where it is often difficult for some parents to commit to this likely annual vaccine,” said Dr. Ego-Osuala who also shared “some of my patients are pushing their vaccine schedules further along, asking more questions about routine vaccines, or simply declining routine CDC established vaccines.”

Dr. Risha Irvin, a physician in the division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, referenced the Harris Poll/Stat Poll, which found African Americans reported that they “were less likely than white Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as it is ready.”

“I think the poll reinforces what I hear from my work in community engagement around COVID-19 vaccines,” said Dr. Risha Irvin.

Research published in 2011 by the American Journal of Public Health found that during the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, African Americans were less likely than Whites to receive a 2009- H1N1 vaccination. Authors of the study, Uscher-Pines, Maurer and Harris also found that both African Americans and Hispanics “were less likely than were Whites to agree that vaccines are safe in general.”

When talking with physicians, distrust appears to play a huge role in reluctance towards the COVID-19 vaccination in Black communities. Dr. Irvin expressed that some African Americans “may view vaccinations as continued experimentation.”

Dr. Ego-Osuala referenced the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. When asked how these struggles can be addressed or what measures can be implemented to counteract the negative perceptions about the COVID-19 vaccination in the Black community, the medical community emphasizes communication and trust.

For Dr. Ego-Osuala, interventions should address racial disparities in health care, which he acknowledges is still a glaring issue in the U.S. health care system.

“I’ve witnessed instances where two physicians of different racial backgrounds will encourage the same management plan. However, [the] patient who is African American is more inclined to listen to the Black American physician than his/her counterpart,” said Dr. Ego- Osuala, who also mentioned “full transparency on the benefits and relative risks about the vaccine can curb some skepticism and encourage the Black community to become more informed about the vaccine and hopefully open to receiving COVID-19 vaccination.”

Dr. Irvin shared that “we have to communicate vaccine science in ways that are effective and digestible to a large audience. We also have to address racism in medicine and health disparities head on, so that we can understand medical distrust and work on ways to improve the interaction between communities and the medical field/researchers. That means we have to invest in long term community engagement and open dialogue.”

A COVID-19 Community Leadership Group of African American Faith and Community Leaders has been established at Johns Hopkins University to facilitate community education and dialogue, according to Dr. Irvin.

With recent developments and promising results from pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, an approved COVID-19 vaccination is on track to be available before the end of 2020. However, it’s clear that current efforts to address the acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccination in Black communities must continue.