In honor of Black History Month and ongoing efforts to vaccinate Michigan residents against COVID-19, Ypsilanti legislators hosted local and state leaders in a virtual discussion Wednesday night about the racial roots of vaccine skepticism.
Panelists included Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Charles Wilson, community health promotion supervisor at the Washtenaw County Health Department, addressed concerns about the vaccine in a presentation to the panel. Wilson said that according to the Pew Research Center, only 32% of Black adults across the United States say they “definitely” or “probably” will take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Wilson said some people are concerned about “second-class citizenship,” or the assumption that higher-profile people are getting a different vaccine than others.
Khaldun, who was recently named to the federal COVID-19 task force by President Joe Biden’s administration, acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color.
“We know this pandemic has completely devastated communities of color,” Khaldun said. “It is important people know these vaccines are safe and effective, and it is the tool to end this pandemic.”
Khaldun spoke about her experience as a Black woman receiving the vaccine, saying she understood those who may be anxious to take it. Khaldun assured the audience that people of color were included in the vaccine trials, which was one of the concerns brought up in the Q&A portion of the event. Additionally, Khaldun said these vaccines went through the normal protocols used to bring vaccines to the public and were not rushed.
Both Khaldun and Gilchrist said the state of Michigan’s goal is to eliminate racial disparities in vaccine distribution. They said the social vulnerability index, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track effects of “external stresses” like natural disasters and disease outbreaks on human health like natural disasters and disease outbreaks, will be consulted in determining vaccine distribution in Michigan and across the country.
In April 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which is now working to ensure that communities of color have the appropriate access to and resources for receiving the vaccine. In the spring, during the first COVID-19 surge in Michigan, 40% of deaths in the state were of Black residents despite the fact that Black people make up 14% of the state’s population.
Washtenaw County was home to even greater disparities early in the pandemic. In mid-April, Black residents made up 12.4% of the county population, but 48% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
State Rep. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, encouraged people of color to receive the vaccine once they are able to.
“This shot will make the difference between life and death,” Peterson said. “You must be healthy for the sake of your family and friends.”
At the start of the event, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., shared her own experiences getting the vaccine, which she received Friday. Dingell said her initial fears about getting the vaccine were quickly put to rest.
“I was scared to death at getting the shot,” Dingell said. “… (But) the fact of the matter is this vaccine is safe.”
Students at the University of Michigan have also spoken about vaccine skepticism among communities of color, particularly in Black communities. LSA junior Arianna McClellan said past exploitation of Black communities for medical purposes, such as the Tuskegee Study which knowingly denied many Black men treatment for syphilis, have made her friends and family hesitant to get the vaccine.
McClellan said despite these concerns, she is committed to receiving the vaccine when one is available.
“Most of my friends and some of my family members have been skeptical about getting the vaccine,” McClellan said. “I think it’s important to keep myself healthy and I’m not putting myself in the position of danger.”
Daily Staff Reporter Alec Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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