When it comes to the effectiveness--and safety--of the COVID-19 vaccine, the statistics have been overwhelmingly positive.
Two of the top vaccines--from Pfizer and Moderna--have proven to be more than 94% effective in preventing symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
After nearly 30 million doses administered, the CDC has judged the vaccines to be "very low risk."
Yet, early reports suggest Rochester's Black community is still wary of the vaccine.
"There is definitely mistrust among the African American community in the health care system, clinicians, and even the federal government," said Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, speaking at a recent videoconference.
A recent survey of more than 100 Black churchgoers from Rochester and the Twin Cities, Brewer said, found that 75% were unsure if they would get a vaccine for COVID-19.
Brewer is hoping to change that attitude. And she's hoping to get that message out through area churches.
“Black churches have long been more than places of worship to their communities,” she said. “They serve as strongholds for disseminating trusted information, including health information.”
Black communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to Mayo Clinic. Blacks generally have higher infection and mortality rates than the general population (caused in part by underlying chronic diseases, and social and economic inequality).
Brewer serves as a leader of the FAITH! (Fostering African-American Improvement in Total Health) initiative to promote heart health in Black faith communities. She hopes using connections to area leaders can help get accurate and lifesaving information to Rochester's Black community, including how (and why) to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"[These area leaders] serve as strongholds for disseminating trusted information, including health information,” she said.
We reached out to a few of those leaders for their insights on the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine for Rochester's Black community.
Let’s talk about vaccine hesitancy
Dr. Floyd Willis has worked at Mayo Clinic as a family physician for 29 years. And since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he has been caring for patients with COVID-19 every day.
Now that vaccines for COVID-19 have started to become available, he says patients and people from the community ask him all the time: “Should I get the vaccine?” and “How do I decide if it’s the right thing for me?”
Many of the people asking are people of color, and, as a person of color himself, Dr. Willis says he understands why they are asking. It's not a simple question, he acknowledges.
“People ask this question because, in the past, medicine did not have a good track record in the way it interacted with people of color,” said Dr. Willis.
In addition, when it comes to these new vaccines, people want to know if they can trust the science behind them.
“If people ask about the science, I tell them that the National Medical Association, which is a group of African American physicians, did a critical review of the COVID data. The vaccine data was accepted as good science.” said Dr. Willis. “They confirmed, among other things, that the vaccine trials included enough African American people.”
What does Dr. Willis tell people when they ask if they should get a vaccine when it’s offered to them?
“I think people need to hear how big a risk COVID-19 is,” said Dr. Willis. “I tell them COVID is a huge risk—compared to the risk of getting the shots. I tell them right now the vaccines are the best tool we have to fight this disease, and there’s way too much risk to not getting them.”
“We all are taking a risk, but I am not willing to risk the lives of others”
LaSonya Natividad, a Certified Nurse Practitioner at Mayo Clinic, said she considered many factors, including the history of vaccines and the Black community, when she decided to receive the vaccine.
“I want to be as safe as I possibly can. I have a pre-existing condition, asthma, and some of my family members have chronic diseases. I also provide services to patients that travel across the country to see me and many of them are elderly,” Natividad said. "I was not without trepidation, especially after reading about the Tuskegee experiment. That lasted over 40 years and caused extreme harm to the African Americans involved."
She also considered the story of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells, unknown to her, were used for cancer research worldwide.
"Her amazing cells offered so much to the area of cancer research," said Natividad. "Neither she nor her family received any compensation. It wasn’t until recently that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute donated. It took almost 70 years after stealing and using her cells without consent."
Despite that history, though, Natividad said the vaccine will be "the first next step in returning to normalcy. Hopefully, soon we will be able to travel without restrictions and conduct business as usual. Re-opening to capacity provides continued opportunities for people. Many of us are social beings. The opportunity to connect in person is near and dear to the hearts of many."
Natividad acknowledges the unknowns with the COVID-19 vaccine.
"One can’t help but question, how long will immunity last? What parts of the human body will be impacted? If any. Will the vaccine be effective as different strains of the virus mutates, like all viruses do?"
She said the slight risk, though, is worth it.
"We’re all taking a risk. Why? There are many of us that don’t want the burden of putting other people's lives at risk."
Will you choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Shani Green, Social Worker at Olmsted County
"This has been a decision fraught with skepticism, distrust, and fear due to the history of medical experimentation on my people and other communities of color. I’d rather Not get the vaccine to be honest. In the end though, I decided not to feed the fear that paralyzes so many and to put my faith in God and trust our government and medical professionals are trying to help us, not hurt us. So that being said, say a prayer for ya girl and watch my journey … I’ll be honest with you about how it makes me feel and any side effects! And if I turn into a zombie, well then you’ll know what you need to do!! This is a scary moment for many Blacks."
Ken Henry, Post Bulletin advertising director
"There’s no questioning the doubts and concerns that African American communities have about taking the COVID-19 vaccine. I have been listening to both sides of the debate and taking a peek back into the history of events such as the Tuskegee experiment, and found myself on the fence as far as getting the vaccine. Well, I’m over the fence now and on the side of getting the vaccine after my daughter Carneisha Henry, who works in the medical field as an addiction therapist, received her second of two shots recently. Quite frankly, after she received her initial shot I was off the fence because I would never expect my daughter to do anything that I wouldn’t do as well. Her side effects were limited to soreness at the injection site and she was a little nauseous. She led the way out of necessity, and now I’m hoping that not only I follow her, but others who are still on the fence."
Laithan Dyer, Rochester, Minn.
"I will get the COVID vaccine because I believe at this point in the pandemic, it is imperative that we, Americans, all do what we can to move towards herd immunity. I have had 10 relatives, friends, or acquaintances who have expired as either a direct result or impart due to COVID complications. The two most important factors are my children, Odin and Maggie. As a father, I don't think there is a more important, teachable moment, concerning civic duty versus individualism, than a GLOBAL PANDEMIC ! We are all connected."