Screenshot of the Black Health Care Coalition's "Is the science safe?" virtual townhall on Jan. 5, 2021/The Beacon

When Nevada Lee, an internal medicine physician and assistant medical director at One Community Hospice and Palliative Care, heard her friends, acquaintances, and family members saying they weren’t planning on getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available, she became inspired to volunteer with the Black Health Care Coalition to get accurate information about the vaccine out to the community.

Now the coalition is launching a campaign focusing on the COVID-19 vaccine’s potential impact on the Black community in Kansas City. The goal? To reach 45,000 Black people in the Kansas City area to help them make informed decisions about the vaccine.

But some Black people are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for various reasons, including mistrust of medical professionals due to historical mistreatment, fear of potential side effects and concern about the timeframe of the vaccine’s creation. Because of this, the coalition is working to spread scientific knowledge through virtual town halls. It also is working with local health systems, faith leaders and other organizations to promote equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The virus is killing us,” Lee said. “Taking the vaccine will save Black lives.”

Over one-third of Black adults say they definitely or probably won’t get vaccinated, according to a December survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some of this is due to distrust of medical professionals because of past events, like the Tuskegee syphilis study, where doctors unethically studied Black men with syphilis without their consent or providing treatment.

“We know that racism is something that is still in our health care system today, we’re not ignoring it,” said Melissa Robinson, president of the Black Health Care Coalition and third district councilwoman for Kansas City. “In the short term, it’s critically important that African Americans understand the life-saving science behind the vaccine.”

Others are afraid of the potential side effects, said Leslie Fields, an internal medicine physician at the St. Luke’s Health System and president of the greater Kansas City chapter of the National Medical Association. She said the most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are pain and swelling on the arm in the area someone gets the shot, which is similar to other major vaccinations.

Fields said some people are also concerned about the short timeframe in which the vaccine was created, for which she said there is some reason to take pause, but that the health risks of the disease are much more concerning.

“We are dealing with a disease that kills with a level of efficiency that most physicians have never seen before,” she said. “We know that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is just too great.”

Vaccination’s importance for the Black community

For Kansas City’s Black community, COVID-19 carries a higher burden. In both Kansas and Missouri, Black people have experienced higher mortality rates than white people.

Lee said some of this is due to higher rates of preexisting conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease that the Black population faces. Lee said Black people often have less access to medical care and more exposure to COVID-19 because they often hold jobs in the service industries. She said the Black population in general has lower income, less health insurance and less access to healthy foods. It also faces discrimination in health care, such as biases from health care providers.

The two current vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, have been shown to be about 95% effective. About 10% of the individuals in the clinical trials for the vaccines were Black, and there were no complications in the Black participants,  Lee said.

Samuel U. Rodgers healthcare worker and testing site coordinator, Annie Lacy, prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at a community drive-through tesing site at Friendship Baptist Church in east Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Zachary Linhares/The Beacon

“African Americans will benefit as individuals taking the vaccine, but the country as a whole also will not be able to curb this disease, or get community immunity, if African Americans do not take the vaccine,” Lee said. She said that in order to reach the vaccination rate of 70% that is required to provide herd immunity to COVID-19, participation of the Black community is necessary.

And without vaccination, the virus’ prevalence in the Black community is projected to grow worse. 

“The virus is two to three times worse in our community,” Lee said. “If we don’t participate in the vaccination process, by the end of the year, the problem will be about six times worse in our community than it is in other communities.”

Lee emphasized that along with getting vaccinated, people should continue other public health efforts such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Increasing vaccine knowledge

The Black Health Care Coalition has been working on efforts to educate Black people in Kansas City about the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Jan. 6, it held its first virtual event for the public where Black medical professionals discussed the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines and the timeline of their release to the public. The Black Health Care Coalition plans to repost and share the town hall video, as well as host similar future events.

A guest speaker at the virtual town hall, Virginia Caine, an infectious disease expert at the Indiana School of Medicine, explained how the mRNA vaccines work, addressed common myths about the vaccine, talked through the potential side effects of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, addressed the long-term risks of COVID-19, detailed the distribution plan for the vaccine, and answered questions from the public.

In addition, the Black Health Care Coalition plans to hold a roundtable for clergy members. Michael Weaver, an emergency medicine specialist at St. Luke’s Health System, said the organization is reaching out to the church community to help pass along information about the importance and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Lee said there is hope to use churches that currently are empty due to the pandemic as vaccination sites in the Kansas City area in order to bring vaccines closer to those who need them.

COVID-19 vaccine resources

“If someone has to go a good distance, that reduces the likelihood they will get the vaccine,” she said.

Niki Donawa, chief communications officer for the Truman Medical Centers, said the organization will use mobile units to help distribute the vaccine out in the community.

“We want to administer the vaccine in the most equitable way possible,” Donawa said.

Robinson said another of the Black Health Care Coalition’s current efforts that can result in wider vaccine distribution is helping Black people in Kansas City who are currently in economic crisis.

“Talking to people about their immediate needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, can help navigate them through the medical system,” Robinson said.

Currently, the vaccine is still in the earliest stage of its distribution in both Kansas and Missouri, where it is available for only healthcare providers, and long-term care residents and workers.

“I cannot stress enough the level of death and destruction that this virus has caused, and this vaccine represents a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fields said. “We really need to take this as a blessing.”

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Brittany Callan covers health and environment at The Beacon, and is a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.