Medical community works to rebuild trust among people of color as COVID-19 vaccine gets approval

Having an effective COVID-19 vaccine is a victory, but the challenge remains, convincing people it’s safe to get.

DETROIT – Having an effective COVID-19 vaccine is a victory, but it will still be a challenge to convince people it’s safe to get.

That can be especially true among some people of color. The mistrust in the public health system is long and well-documented. It includes inequities with access to healthcare and well-documented medical science abuses against Black people.

For Dr. Kellie McFarlin, a surgeon at Henry Ford Hospital, there are many reasons why she was motivated to enroll in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial at Henry Ford Hospital.

“I wanted to do as much as I could to protect me and my family,” said McFarlin, who is mom to twin daughters.

She was also deeply affected by the death of her cousin earlier this year. Skylar Herbert was 5 years old and died from complications from COVID-19.

“I was really affected by passing of my cousin Skylar, feeling really helpless at that time,” McFarlin said.

She also felt strongly about the importance of minorities participating in vaccine studies.

“We need diversity in clinical trials, knowing that the African American community needs to be represented in the clinical trial,” McFarlin said.

Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Chief Wellness and Diversity Officer at Henry Ford Hospital, echoes that because it’s the way we ensure the vaccine is good for everyone.

“If we don’t know how various medications or treatments or vaccines play out in a certain community, then we’re not sure whether it’s as safe and as efficacious in those communities,” Dr. Wisdom.

Strong efforts were made to make sure minorities are represented in the vaccine trials, and unfortunately, history did not make that easy.

“There have been many government-backed research programs. The Tuskegee (experiment), of course, is one of them but many, many others that, whether it’s sterilization procedures that weren’t done to women without them knowing,” Dr. Wisdom said.

Wisdom has said because of the years of mistrust, there has been a need to do a lot of explaining to help people understand the mechanisms of treatment or clinical trial and to also give the assurance that there are many efforts in place to ensure that the Tuskegee experiment is not repeated and to make sure that there’s informed consent.

Well-known cases to cause the mistrust include Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were used for research without her consent.

And the Tuskegee Experiment, in which 600 black men were lured into a study with the promises of free health care.  Instead, many were left untreated for syphilis as part of a study that went on for decades.

“There was an experiment used to develop some sort of a cure for syphilis, but they did not tell them what they were really doing and they experimented on African American men, women. As a result of that experimentation, some women were unfortunately not able to have children going forward, some people even died as a result of that, and there were all kind of effects of that and we didn’t know until years later,” said Reverend Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP.

While history is a problem, it is not the only one.

“If you look in our communities today. there is a disparate number of African Americans and Latinos, and people of color who are receiving the brunt of the effects of COVID-19, and that’s a number of factors, the poverty rates. The lack of education that goes with that, the lack of access to health care,” Anthony said.

Anthony told Local 4 that he is glad the state is identifying the racial disparities and doing something about them. He acknowledges that black people are skeptical about the vaccine and that’s one reason why he is speaking out about it.

“We in this. This is not Tuskegee, y’all. This is not Alabama in 1930 and 1932. This is Michigan, this is the United States in 2020. We need the vaccine,” Anthony said. “I’m going to take the vaccine. Now. I’m taking it because the research is there. I trust science and I trust the people that are doing it.”

Wisdom said they have been working with faith-based groups to build trust in the vaccine and medical community.

“That combination gives people a tremendous level of trust that we ordinarily do not see. When a pastor or bishop, or an Imam or someone that plays a leadership role in the faith-based community that also bodes well in terms of building that trust,” Wisdom said.

The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities is making educating about the vaccine a priority.

READ: Michigan task force addressing racial disparities amid pandemic sees signs of progress

“As a Black man, it’s very important to me that people are able to have their questions answered and concerns aliased. The task force is putting together a plan working across state government, and with partner institutions to make sure that people have a place to go to get these questions answered,” said Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist.

Wisdom said it’s important for people to ask questions and have options to get answers.

“If they have a provider, to hear from the provider. Also, watch what the scientific community is doing, look to see when Fauci gets his vaccine, look to see what physicians are getting their vaccine,” Wisdom said. " So, I would say, not to make a definitive decision and say, “I’ll never get the vaccine.’ But just say, “Not right now’ or ‘Not yet.’ But to keep that window of opportunity to receive the vaccine open.”

“It’s definitely a big gap to bridge and I think it starts with being forthcoming with all the information, making the information accessible to everyone,” McFarlin said.

One thing everyone can agree on, educating everyone about the COVID-19 vaccines is a community-wide effort. People should ask questions and remain informed.

Dec. 15, 2020 -- Michigan coronavirus cases up to 442,715; Death toll now at 10,935

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