'Big role to play': Local faith leaders to help overcome COVID-19 vaccine reluctance and distrust

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- To be a church pastor in any community, you have to be listener -- hearing people's pain and suffering. And too many times over the last nine months in the Black community, it has been suffering over COVID-19.

As we hit this pandemic turning point with the arrival of a vaccine, it is Black faith leaders being called to ease fears and knock down misinformation.

"It's interesting, I think some of them just don't know what to expect and they don't want to be the first ones. And so they're a little bit reluctant," said Rev. Prince Rivers, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Durham.
If Sunday services are ever going to get back to the way were at Union Baptist Pastor Rivers believes widespread distribution of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is the only shot. His congregation is 5,000 members strong, largely black and he's heard some of the skepticism toward vaccinations.

"I think that people haven't heard anything negative about the vaccine. It's misinformation or lack of information altogether," River said.



In Monday night's 20/20 special on the vaccine, The Shot: Race for the Vaccine, experts stressed the need for trusted voices within communities to speak out about the vigorous science that went into the development.

"There's a lot of data about how reluctant people will be to take the vaccine," said philanthropist Bill Gates.

But in the Black community, being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19, there are levels of distrust - formed from the times when science was not on the side of people of color.

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There was the Tuskegee Experiment in 1930s when black sharecroppers were told they were being treated for "bad blood" when in reality it was a study to see what happens when syphilis goes untreated. Or North Carolina Eugenics Board, when the state sterilized thousands of women, largely Black and poor women, against their will.

"And so there are people who have a sense of distrust whether they have all the information they need to make an informed decision," Rivers said.

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As the vaccine arrives medical experts at the state-level and private say they're relying on local faith leaders to be a pivotal bridge to marginalized communities whose vaccine suspicions may be linked to a complicated history.

"I think faith communities and faith leaders have a big role to play in this," said Rivers. "First step is getting the right information."

Rivers called it a responsibility he is taking very seriously. Next month, Union Baptist plans to hold a series of online forums with officials from NCDHHS. Discussions designed to give a chance for his congregation and the public to get solid, up-to-date information to make their own, informed decision on the vaccine.

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