Communities of color skeptical about COVID-19 vaccine, citing complex history

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DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Vaccine distributor Pfizer met with the Food & Drug Administration this Thursday as they seek emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna, one of its competitors, is set for the same meeting next week as well.

Following the Pfizer meeting, North Carolina expects to receive 85,800 doses of the vaccine in its first distribution. State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen released a phased approach for how North Carolina will handle the rollout.

Included among the phases are members of marginalized communities, such as the Black community, who have a complicated history with the United States and North Carolina governments.

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"I don't think we'll ever forget it," said Dr. Rhonda Sharpe. She serves as the president for the non-profit advocacy group Women's Institute for Science, Equity, and Race (WISER). WISER emphasizes women-focused policy research for Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, and multiracial women.

Dr. Sharpe can recall the controversial and unethical history of the Tuskegee Experiment in which thousands of Black men were experimented on without their informed consent from 1932 to 1972. The study targeted Black men who were not given treatment for syphillis after being told they would be given free treatment by the government. It was also known as the "Tuskegee Study on Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male."

In North Carolina, the now-defunct Eugenics Board of North Carolina sterilized people they considered to be unfit and undesirable. The majority of those people were Black.

"There is value in (remembering) because being mindful that you have been a population that has not been valued and experimented," Dr. Sharpe said.

A recent Pew Research survey conducted in mid-November found that 57% of Black adults and 37% of Latino adults surveyed said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available today.

"We need to remember," said Dr. Sharpe. "But remember without being paralyzed. Remember for the purpose of holding the medical community accountable."

Sharpe said she is skeptical of the vaccine and would like to see how Black people and the general population respond to its efficacy and side effects. She's not alone, and explained that insufficient data on vaccine trials in communities of color leads to medical mistrust.

"When we're talking about mistrust, some of that separates by education and class. And the reality is when you're viewed as poor and uneducated, doctors don't feel the need to speak in a language that you can understand," Sharpe added. "And that's a flaw on ther behalf."

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The North Carolina Vaccine Distribution Plan is nearly 150 pages long and includes input from the North Carolina Institute of Medicine. Interim director Michelle Ries serves on the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee said a focus of the advisory committee has been outreach to and education for historically marginalized communities.

"The state has been doing a lot of work around making sure there is a full understanding of the reasons for that mistrust," said Ries.

Others, such as Thea Monet, a program consultant for the Center for Black Health and Equity, suggest one way to build trust within communities of color is to get buy-in and advocacy efforts from faith-based leaders.

"Pastors will help to build that bridge with comfort and with security," Monet said. "And certainly with accuracy comes from the medical person."

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Thea Monet, a program consultant for the Center for Black Health and Equity, suggests one way to build trust within communities of color is to get buy-in and advocacy efforts from



One of those people Monet is referring to is a role Dr. Adia Ross would be appropriate for. Dr. Ross serves as the chief medical director for Duke Regional Hospital and as a Black woman, she too is part of a marginalized community. She believes communities of color should understand the context of the vaccine and others should be sensitive to the dark history involved within the community.

"I want people to think about this in the current context in how the vaccine is being distributed and which population is going first," said Dr. Ross. "So, you should feel very confident healthcare professionals would not put their own at risk for something if we didn't believe in it."

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Both Sharpe and Monet said the best way to make sure the vaccine will be safe for you in particular is to talk to your health care provider, and bring someone to advocate on your behalf if you can.

"They have to answer questions, let these patients make appointments--even if they're only virtual--to review your health status, your medication regimen, what it means, what the vaccine might mean if and when you take it. Let them know you're trying to make an informed decision, and that's based on who you are," Monet said. "It takes more to feel like I'm doing something intrinsically to help my health and wellbeing, and I think that doctors can help to instill that in you when you have more information about yourself and your body."
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