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Local Black panelists tackle history-based distrust of vaccines

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 20, 2021

Local Black panelists aimed to dispel historically rooted distrust of vaccines at a virtual event Saturday.   (Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Local Black panelists aimed to dispel historically rooted distrust of vaccines at a virtual event Saturday.  (Kirsty Wigglesworth)

A panel of Black community leaders and medical professionals met virtually Saturday to address distrust surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine in local communities of color.

With more than 90 participants on the Zoom call, Kiantha Duncan, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, ran a poll.

Seventy-four percent of respondents answered, yes, they would take the vaccine. Eight percent said no and 18% said they weren’t sure.

The hesitance demonstrated by more than a quarter of those attending the meeting is deeply rooted in history, said Christymarie Jackson, an equity and social justice consultant at the Washington State Department of Health.

“For me, trust is earned, and government and institutions have really taken away that trust from communities,” Jackson said.

But, in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, she said they’re effective, well-researched and safe.

Duncan imagined what her late grandmother would think about vaccines.

“She would say, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not taking that stuff. I’ve seen on Facebook how they trail you, they find your bank account,’” Duncan said to start the meeting. “She might also think, ‘Nuh-uh,’ I remember what happened with the Tuskegee Experiment.”

Several panelists and community members asking questions referenced the infamous 1932 experiment, during which researchers told 339 Black men with syphilis that they would treat their illness, but they did not. Instead, the researchers studied the men as they died from the infection. The study began in 1932 and, though projected to go on for six months, it continued for 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Duncan warned people not to draw a false comparison with COVID-19 vaccines.

“This vaccination is not happening for just us, just the Black community,” Duncan said. “They’re not tracing us. There’s no chip.”

Several of the panelists in medical fields had gotten the vaccine and none had side effects worse than body aches and chills, they said.

Sam Irem, a local pharmacist, described how vaccines have undergone rigorous trials before reaching the public . Unlike the 1932 Tuskegee Experiment, those studies are now held to stringent ethical standards and must involve informed consent, meaning participants knew “what it’s all about, the nature of the study, the potential side effects, the potential outcomes,” Irem said.

Dr. Okechukwu Ojogho, a surgeon and chief of organ transplants for Sacred Heart Medical Center, noted that millions of Americans have received the vaccine so far, and potential side effects have had the opportunity to emerge.

As of February 19, Bloomberg News reported more than 199 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, including more than 60 million in the United States.

Ojogho also pointed to the vaccines’ Federal Drug Administration approval and separate green light from the National Medical Association, one of the nation’s largest associations of African American doctors.

“This is a very, very serious infection,” Ojogho said. “If 50% choose not to be vaccinated, first, on a personal level, it puts you at risk for getting the infection. If it puts you at risk for getting it, it also puts your family members at risk as well.”

Geoffrey Mwangi, a doctor of nursing practice at NATIVE Project in Spokane, tackled a common conspiracy theory claiming mRNA in vaccines change the vaccinated person’s genetic makeup. He said the tiny strand of mRNA in vaccines allows the body to recognize and fight the virus, but that, “We are not changing anybody’s DNA – mRNA is not going into the nucleus.”

One panelist, local chef Daphne Davis, took offense to Duncan’s emphasis on misinformation coming from social media, saying it was not a fair assumption about Black people who doubt the vaccine. Davis said she was against vaccinations of all kinds based on her study of anti-vaccination books.

In January, a study from University of Washington researchers found Amazon’s search algorithm promotes books with misinformation about vaccines. Searches and recommended products skew even more toward misinformation if a shopper has shown a history of clicking on and purchasing books that tout false information, like those linking vaccines with autism, the study found.

After hearing from the medical professionals, Pastor Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane weighed in.

“The vaccine is the wisdom of god being displayed through men and women,” Kendricks said. “God puts people in our path to help us along the way.”

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