The federal government, in the 1930s, conducted experiments on Black men without their knowledge, contributing to generational mistrust in medicine and health science.
But the Black community isn’t the only one with doubts that stem from racism and mistreatment.
Now that vaccines are being administered, groups like the NAACP Las Vegas and the Latin Chamber of Commerce are having to confront long-standing mistrusts along with myths circulating within communities of color.
The groups hosted a virtual panel Wednesday to discuss misunderstanding and misconceptions around Covid along with the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color.
The event, put on in collaboration with UNLV School of Public Health and the Nevada Minority Health and Equity Coalition, comes amid the release of local data exposing equity issues in vaccinations among Black and brown communities.
“This has disproportionately affected our community tremendously,” said Roxann McCoy, the president of NAACP Las Vegas. “If we want to get back to any sense of normalcy we need to educate ourselves on how this vaccine will assist us. I understand there is a lot of fear surrounding this vaccine in our community. I want to dispel these myths so we can make an informed decision moving forward in order to eradicate this pandemic.”
The lack of trust by Black and brown people about the vaccine is rooted in systemic racism within health care.
One of the most prevalent historical examples causing mistrust, McCoy said, is the Tuskegee experiment conducted on Black men without their consent.
“They experimented on African American males and syphilis to see how their bodies would respond,” she said. “They were told it was something else when they were being injected with syphilis. That among many other tests have been performed unwilling on African Americans.”
Hispanic and Indigenous communities also have suspicions based on historical mistreatment.
Dr. Crystal Lee, an associate professor with the University of New Mexico who is also part of the Navajo nation, said in exchange for relinquishing land Tribal nations were supposed to get federal funding for housing, health care and education. Treaties outlining these exchanges have been broken or haven’t lived up to standards.
“All three components have not been fully funded, nor do we have the quality of implementations of health care services,” she said. “There has been a long continuum of decades of mistrust as being Native American and within the Indian Health Care system. As a result, our tribal members have been very concerned about the dissemination of the vaccine due to the continuing mistrust we have experienced.”
Peter Guzman with the Latin Chamber said there is misinformation within the Hispanic community such as a myth that vaccines contain microchips (they don’t) which would allow. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track and detain people vaccinated people.
“This is real and people don’t get that. We’ve been deported and we’ve been caged so immigration issues are real,” he said. “So for abuelita,” Guzman said, referring to a Spanish word for grandmother, “if it even crosses her mind that maybe somebody in the household who is undocumented could be at risk, she’s not going to take that chance.”
A history of mistrust mixed with concerns over how quickly the vaccine was developed has created a perfect storm.
But Dr. Christina Madison, an associate professor with Roseman University, said Wednesday night that not only is there no reason for concern but there’s also a scientific reason for why the vaccine is already being administered.
Covid-19, which is a type of coronavirus, is similar to other diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was identified in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which appeared in 2012.
“Because of that, there was a lot of research toward those two infections because they were part of the coronavirus family,” Madison said. “We have been studying the possibility of having a vaccine for those two infections for the past 17 years. We did test a vaccine in 2018, specifically against MERS. When you think about all that research, we were lucky we had that as a starting point in 2020 when we sequenced the genetics of SARS-coV-2 (Covid-19).”
Nearly two decades of research was only matched by international will and massive funding.
“We had everyone in the world working on this,” she added.
Madison, who noted the lead scientist for the Moderna vaccine is a Black woman, said those studying the vaccine also recruited people of color to look at the effects across a diverse group of people.
The panel also fielded questions such as whether the vaccine changes someone’s DNA (it doesn’t), and if it is necessary to wear a mask after getting vaccinated (it is).
Madison said scientists are still determining if those vaccinated could still be asymptomatic carriers and transmit the virus. Additionally, new variants of Covid have been popping up which could hinder some efficacy.
“This virus wants to live and viruses mutate in order to survive,” she said. “Until we get the population vaccinated and get to herd immunity, we still need to protect ourselves and those around us by trying not to contract either of the new variants.”
Wearing a mask — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to double mask to further reduce the odds of transmission — offers more protection.
Even if community groups are working to overcome concerns and misinformation, there is still more work that needs to be done around the obstacles communities face getting vaccines and obtaining personal protective equipment and masks.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, who called recent data around disparity an equity crisis, announced last week efforts to work with the Southern Nevada Health District and Clark County to boost fairness in allocations.
Without access to the vaccine and more resources, panelists worried communities of color will continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic.
“Our language and culture is being lost with every elder that we lose, which is very significant in our communities,” Lee said. “We have a lot of ceremonies that require some sort of gathering. Because of Covid, we are unable to upkeep within our ceremonial systems that help us retain and learn our language and culture.”