Ensuring Black Americans receive COVID-19 vaccines

By The Health News Team | December 6, 2021
Nurse giving vaccine to patient

Before three safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines became available in the U.S., only 42% of Black Americans said they planned to get one. While that number has since increased — 55% of Black people in the country have now received a COVID-19 vaccine — vaccine hesitancy and issues related to access to the vaccine among Black Americans remain a concern.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black Americans are more likely to become severely ill or die due to complications of COVID-19 than other populations. In fact, Black individuals account for 15% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., though they make up only 12% of the overall population, and are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 as white people.

“African Americans and Hispanics have lost 2.9 to 3 years of life as a result of COVID-19 — directly or indirectly,” says Dr. Robert Gillespie, a cardiologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “And that signals there must be something going on. That’s why we are committed to delivering better health to our communities, whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or any other major health condition, from diabetes and obesity to hypertension — all of which overwhelmingly affect the African American community. The way we've historically approached health care for this population has not been effective, so we need to look at more effective ways.”

The importance of vaccine equity
Dr. Gillespie and other experts join the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in these concerns. The federal agency states that it remains committed to equity in health care, including vaccine equity, and ensuring that everyone has fair and just access to vaccines. However, there are several factors that create challenges to vaccination among certain populations, specifically Black Americans and other people of color.

These factors include:

  • Education, income and wealth gaps

  • Job access and working conditions

  • Racism and other forms of discrimination

  • Gaps in health care access

  • Transportation and neighborhood conditions

  • Lack of trust as a result of past medical racism and experimentation

  • Misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines

“Anytime there is an access problem, the people who are hurt the most are minorities,” says Dr. Gillespie. “That’s just the way it works out across the board every single time. And when you add a population’s hesitancy to the issue, the problem becomes even greater. We need to address these issues in a different way than what we've done historically.”

Challenges to vaccination — whether they are historical, social, political, economic or environmental — can be addressed through a variety of efforts to encourage more Black Americans to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Gillespie says. He has joined forces with other local health care providers under the banner of the Joint Initiatives for Racial Equity in Health (JIREH) to launch effective outreach programs in San Diego.

Efforts will include:

  • Building vaccine confidence among Black San Diegans

  • Sharing clear and accurate information about COVID-19

  • Raising awareness about the benefits of vaccination

  • Addressing common vaccine-related questions and concerns

  • Adapting key messages to resonate with communities

  • Removing barriers to vaccine access, such as lack of transportation or inconvenient hours at vaccine sites

  • Using trusted venues, messengers and groups for vaccine outreach and distribution

Trust in the message — and the messenger — is vital
According to the COVID Collaborative — a coalition of experts in health, education and the economy — Black Americans are two times more likely to trust the messaging surrounding COVID-19 vaccines from someone of their own racial group compared to that from a person of another group. However, Dr. Gillespie points out that Black Americans make up only 5% of the physician pool, so it is crucial that all doctors, not just Black doctors, understand the importance of the message and how it is relayed.

“When you approach the issue of vaccination with African Americans, it’s important to understand historical concerns about the way that Blacks have been treated in the health care system,” Dr. Gillespie says. “And you have to clearly express to them that you understand the history and their hesitancy, while also sharing that there have been a number of African Americans who participated in the process of developing and administering the vaccine, and that the vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, illness, hospitalization and death.”

Additionally, the CDC encourages community partners who seek to support COVID-19 vaccination confidence and access in minority communities to identify where community members are most likely or willing to get vaccinated and what services the community frequently accesses that could be used to promote and offer COVID-19 vaccination. This might include workplaces, community centers, health centers, faith-based institutions or schools they trust. Businesses such as barbershops and salons, recreational facilities, restaurants and local stores can also play a key role.

Bringing vaccines to Black San Diegans
With this guidance in mind, Dr. Gillespie will join local care providers and community partners at a community vaccination event on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, from 1 to 5 pm, at Bethel AME Church of San Diego, located at 3085 K Street. Dr. Gillespie and others will be on hand to answer questions and concerns related to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Scheduled vaccinations for people age 5 and older and booster shots for eligible adults and adolescents age 5 and and older will be available. All three COVID-19 vaccines — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — will be offered; however, only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in those ages 5 to 17. Appointments must be scheduled through MyTurn. Flu shots will also be available and can be received at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Our intention is to serve high-risk populations,” Dr. Gillespie says. “Not only are we going to get people their initial vaccinations, but also target those who need boosters, because only 18% of eligible San Diegans — and approximately 9% of eligible African Americans — have gotten their booster shot. And we’re doing this all at Bethel AME Church because the church is where they trust us.”

Get COVID-19 vaccine information and access to COVID-19 resources from Sharp.

This article was updated in May 2022.

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