Experts weigh in on how to decrease vaccine hesitancy among Americans

January 18, 2021

President-elect Joe Biden has said his administration will release every available vaccine when he takes office January 20th in an effort to reach his goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. While this is a daunting task in and of itself, the incoming Biden administration faces a challenge to build trust behind the science of the vaccine.

Growing concern over vaccine development 

As the vaccine rollout has started gaining steam, nearly 40 percent of Americans have said they will “definitely not” or “probably not” take the vaccine, according to Pew Research Center. The hesitancy among those individuals is largely based on their concerns regarding the short time it took to develop the vaccine. 

“I think, first, it’s the true acknowledgement that the situation exists; people do have hesitancy around the vaccine,” said Dr. Raj Shah, a physician and professor at Rush University. 

Shah worked on one of the vaccine trials conducted under Operation Warp Speed — an ongoing partnership created by the U.S. government with private corporations like Pfizer and Moderna — with the aim to develop, create and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine and additional therapeutics. 

However, Shah pointed out that “the components, the backbones of the vaccines that are now currently available under the Emergency Use Authorization, are based on science that has been going on for over 20 years.” 

The vaccine wasn’t simply an overnight epiphany, but rather a culmination of decades of research and development that allowed for an efficient creation process. 

Shah believes calming fears about the vaccine comes down to communication and information. Although companies like Facebook have begun to crack down on Covid-19 misinformation, for many, it’s hard to find reliable and truthful information. 

“We have to continue to start talks, open up dialogues in the kitchen table by informing people with the best information so they can make the decisions for themselves, their family and their community,” he said. 

Distrust within the Black and Latino communities 

Black Americans have historically been mistreated by the healthcare industry, while Latinos lack reliable sources of information, both of which have caused growing distrust within each community. 

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1932 is a recognizable example of medical mistreatment against Black Americans. Throughout the 40-year study, Black male sharecroppers in Macon County, Ala., were used as test subjects and unknowingly injected with syphilis. When the study finally shut down, 128 of the original 399 infected individuals died of syphilis or other related issues. 

Black Americans still face discrimination in the health care system, whether it’s being prescribed older medication with more side effects, being labeled as “dangerous” and thus forced into restraints or even just having to wait longer to see a physician. For example, Black Americans are 7 percent less likely to be considered high-priority patients in emergency rooms and are 10 percent less likely to even be admitted to a hospital, according to a 2019 study conducted by the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research

Circulating information about the vaccine is often presented at a literacy level or language format that many Latinos aren’t able to fully understand. This leads to reliance on word of mouth or other unverified information to inform their medical decisions. 

Another critical factor that has played into this distrust is the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that have come from the Trump administration since 2016 — especially considering reports of abusive procedures by gynecologists against immigrant women in ICE custody. 

Disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on Black and Latino communities 

This long-established mistrust with the medical community is having real effects in regards to Covid-19. Black and Hispanic Americans are 2.8 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white Americans, according to the CDC

The Chicago Covid-19 Community Health Equity Dashboard, created by a team of DePaul University faculty and students, demonstrates the impact of Covid-19 on the city. Dashboard data highlights how neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago, like South Deering and Hegewisch, are experiencing some of the highest death rates per 100,000 people. 

“You need tools to be able to understand where the threats to public health are greatest and this dashboard is really exceptionally easy to use for people who want to understand the trends affecting their own neighborhood,” said professor Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, who oversaw the dashboard’s development. 

Focusing on disparities was another key component of the dashboard, especially given the fact that Chicago is one of the country’s most diverse cities. With over 2.6 million residents, Black and Latino individuals make up for 29.6 percent and 28.8 percent of the city’s population, respectively, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.  

“The city of Chicago set up a racial equity committee to look at how Covid was impacting different racial groups across the city, and so one of the things that we then did of course is tie this in with the American community survey data, which is the kind of demographic data that you see, and so we looked at that as indicators of vulnerable communities,” said professor Euan Hauge, who is the director of the School of Public Service at DePaul. 

“If I can be part of encouraging people to get the vaccine and not being afraid of it, then that’s a great outcome of this project,” added Cassie Follett, a geographic information systems coordinator at DePaul who also aided in the development of the equity dashboard. 

Changing perceptions of the vaccine 

One of the key components of changing the current culture is about building trust. 

“I definitely think one, making the vaccine easily accessible, and two, providing easier access to health care regardless,” said DePaul freshman Xareni Palacios. “Obviously that latter is more difficult, but I believe [it is] a necessary part of gaining trust.” 

Local leaders also play a significant role in making sure the concerns of their constituents are heard and addressed in the right way. 

“People trust neighborhood institutions more than they trust city or statewide institutions, you know, community organizations and black groups and churches and even the alderman’s office,” Schwieterman said. 

As this issue continues to play out, Shah has some simple recommendations to aid in the fight against Covid-19.

“We still have to wear our masks, we still have to physically separate, and we still have to wash our hands, and cover our cough,” he said. “We have to do all of those things and try to add the vaccine into those routines so eventually, we can be more confident that we can go about our day-to-day lives.”

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