#Editorial: Is Celebrating a COVID-19 Vaccine Premature?

In this Nov. 9, 2020, file photo, pedestrians walk past Pfizer world headquarters in New York. Pfizer said Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, it is asking U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic -- but not until after a long, hard winter. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

There is celebration in the scientific community, and media hype, surrounding the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) giving emergency authorization to pharmaceutical company Pfizer to begin distributing its COVID-19 vaccine to Americans age 16 and older.

Since February, when the pandemic first hit the U.S., the death toll has risen to a staggering 300,000-plus, some 16 million people have been contracted the virus and in recent days the daily death toll is over 3,000 people. Amid this devastating new wave, news of a vaccine brings some hope, yet there is a cloud of doubt from many quarters.

There’s no evidence of general public acceptance of this, or other vaccines, being developed to stem COVID-19. Several surveys indicate only 60 percent of Americans are confident in being vaccinated. 

The reluctance is greater among the Black community where surveys indicate only 32 percent is willing to take the vaccine.

Associated with this doubt, is the fact that the sheer size of the U.S. population of over 350 million means it will take several months before everyone can be vaccinated. So, while some people will be upfront in line to get the vaccine as early as this week, the virus will still be around placing millions at risk. To be fully effective the vaccine must create herd immunity or succeed in making the majority of Americans immune to the virus.

But the primary challenge, even if there were unlimited amounts of the vaccine available, is the lack of trust with this vaccine.

Responding to why they doubt the effectiveness of the new vaccine, several people have expressed concern in the rapid pace of its development. Some believe political pressure was placed on pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine in record time. Others believe the companies may have deliberately cut corners to produce a vaccine to increase their profits.

The doubt among a large percentage of the Black population is steeped in historical atrocities perpetrated on Black people by the scientific and medical communities. The Tuskegee syphilis study comes to mind. Several years from 1932, over 600 Black men were used as guinea pigs to determine the progression of untreated syphilis. The men were told they were being treated for the disease but were instead given placebos and allowed to suffer through the disease’s progression.

Although it’s evidentiary that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting low-income Black communities, and it would have been advisable that these communities be among the first to get the vaccine, several people within these communities are fearful of being again used as guinea pigs.  

Another factor spawning distrust among some people in the Black community is the limited ratio of Black physicians to the Black population. In 2019, there were indications only 2.6 percent of America’s physicians, and 7.3 percent of medical school students were Black.

Most people in South Florida’s Caribbean-American community prefer being treated by an African- or Caribbean-American physician. But there isn’t a proliferation of either Caribbean- or African-American doctors in the region. Most people have no alternative but to be treated by physicians who are of other races.

Several studies have shown Black people tend to have better outcomes when treated by trusted Black doctors and nurses.

Black people not only trust and are more inclined to be treated by medical personnel of their own race, but are more willing to heed advice given by Black medical personnel. It is believed that more Black Americans would be willing to take the vaccine if Black doctors assured them it was safe. 

Health officials now have the twin goal of stemming the spread of COVID-19 within minority communities, while convincing the people to trust the vaccine with the potential to stem the spread. This is no easy task.

Naturally, to garner this trust, health officials and other leaders need to focus on promotional campaigns to boost the safety of the vaccine. Additionally, people want to be assured the health of those vaccinated before them is not compromised.

One way of giving this assurance is to place the limited numbers of Black doctors and nurses very high on the priority list for vaccination. Evidence that these doctors and nurses react safely to the vaccine should help alleviate doubt in the safety of the vaccine.

Eric J. Williams, a past president of the National Black Nurses Association and interim associate dean of health sciences at Santa Monica College, California, said he expects Black nurses and doctors to play a major role in persuading other Black people to get vaccinated.

It’s most unfortunate that trust is lacking, not only among America’s Black population but a large percentage of the general population in a vaccine that may stem the spread of COVID-19. 

This is going to need a massive promotional movement and a healthcare system that proves it can be trusted, by all Americans, particularly those from minority communities.

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