- Minority populations including Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the U.S., with evidence indicating they have a higher risk of being infected and/or are at an increased risk of serious disease and death from the infection.
- Many agencies, public figures and states are advocating that such at-risk populations should be among the first to be given the experimental COVID-19 vaccine.
- Historic distrust of government agencies is reportedly contributing to a reluctance to get COVID-19 vaccinations among minority populations in the U.S.
There is evidence that death and serious illness from COVID-19 is disproportionately higher. among Blacks1 and other minority populations in the U.S., including Hispanics and Native Americans.2 3 Reasons for the disparity have been cited as a greater representation of those groups among workers with job that place them at increased exposure to the public, a higher percentage of underlying health issues among minority populations, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, poverty and reduced access to health insurance and quality healthcare.4 5
Many health authorities and social leaders are calling for minority populations to be among the first groups to receive the experimental COVID-19 vaccines. The Veterans Administration, for example, refers to data showing that “Black, Hispanic and Native American veterans are disproportionately affected by the virus, reflecting trends across the broader population,” in announcing that those veterans will be given priority for receiving coronavirus vaccines.6
State COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plans Factor in Race and Income
A number of states have indicated that they, too, will factor in race and income into their vaccine distribution plans. Tennessee, for example, plans to set aside 10 percent of its vaccines “for use in targeted areas with high scores on a measurement known as poverty, crowded housing and other factors.”7
Harald Schmidt, PhD, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “It’s not just a math problem. It’s a question of implementing a major social justice commitment.”8 He argued that:
If the shots get to the right people, the benefits could extend to the entire nation: Fewer people would get sick, hospital capacity would improve and more of the economy could reopen. Lives would be saved.9
Speaking in June 2020, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation had a similar message. She said that after healthcare workers, “Here in the United States, it’s going to be black people who really should get it first and many indigenous people, as well as people with underlying symptoms, and then elderly people.”10
Not All Targeted Minority Groups On Board
At odds with the purportedly humanitarian impulse behind focusing on vulnerable populations for early vaccination, many in minority communities have a high rate of skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine, and indications are that they would not necessarily choose to voluntarily participate in the first wave of vaccinations.
One recent Pew poll showed that only about 40 percent of respondents overall plan to definitely or probably get the vaccine.11 Broken out by race, an estimated 58 percent of Black respondents do not plan to get vaccinated, compared with 39 percent of Hispanic and 37 percent of white respondents.12 In late fall of 2020, the Indian Health Service surveyed 8,197 field workers and found that only 35 percent planned to either “definitely” or “probably” be vaccinated, while 50 percent said they would “definitely” or “probably not” accept vaccination. The remaining 15 percent were undecided.13
Roots of Distrust in Minority Communities
The current lack of trust in the COVID-19 vaccine among minority communities echoes an historic corresponding lack of faith in government-recommended health care practices. Emergency room nurse Maritza Beniquez was excited to be the first person to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in New Jersey, but she says she understands where the mistrust comes from. She told Kaiser Health News, “We remember the Tuskegee trials. We remember the ‘appendectomies’. These are things that have happened to this community to the Black and Latino communities over the last century. As a health care worker, I have to recognize that their fears are legitimate and explain ‘This is not that.'”14
Beniquez refers to several notorious cases: In the 40-year Tuskegee experiment, a promise of free health care was used to recruit 600 African American men in Macon County, Alabama, into a study of the long-term effects of syphilis, before there was any known treatment for the disease.15 Even after penicillin was recognized and became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947, the men were not treated so that the researchers could “track the disease’s full progression.”
The reference to “appendectomies” may allude both to allegations of forced hysterectomies among women detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) at Irwin county detention center in Georgia. There were also thousands of cases of involuntary sterilization of women of color, including Native Americans, during the 1960s and 1970s.16
Milton “Quiltman” Sahme of the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon summed up a pervasive attitude of distrust in the motives of government health agencies among minority populations in Science Magazine. He said, “I don’t have much trust in this government with how they’ve treated my people. They’re constantly telling you one thing and doing another.”17
Patricia Gardner, a Jamaican-born nursing manager at in New Jersey, perceives similar distrust from her patients and colleagues. “A lot of what I hear is, ‘How is it that we weren’t the first to get the care, but now we’re the first to get vaccinated?'”18
Click here to view References:
1 Schnabel J. Why is COVID-19 mild for some deadly for others? Cornell Chronicle Apr. 20, 2020.
2 Marshall WF. Coronavirus infection by race: What’s behind the health disparities? Mayo Cinic Aug. 13, 2020.
3 Johnson CK, Forster N. Vaccine Rollout Could Ease Crisis, But Who Gets It First? The Associated Press Dec. 3, 2020.
4 Olson W. Why a Racial Priority for COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Poses Problems. Cato Institute Dec. 30, 2020.
5 Weller C. Systemic Racism Makes COVID-19 Much More Deadly For African-Americans. Forbes June 18, 2020.
6 Wentling N. Minority Veterans To Receive Priority For Coronavirus Vaccines. Stars and Stripes Dec. 10, 2020.
7 Johnson CK, Forster N. Vaccine Rollout Could Ease Crisis, But Who Gets It First? The Associated Press Dec. 3, 2020.
10 Morris K. Melinda Gates: ‘Black People, Indigenous People’ Should Get Coronavirus Vaccine First. Breitbart June 25, 2020.
11 Cornwall W. Just 50% Of Americans Plan To Get A COVID-19 Vaccine. Here’s How To Win Over The Rest. Science June 30, 2020.
12 Funk C, Tyson A. Intent to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Rises to 60% as Confidence in Research and Development Process Increases. Pew Research Center Dec. 3, 2020.
13 Read R, Lee K. COVID-19 Is Crushing Native American Reservations. But Distrust Of The Government Makes Vaccines A Hard Sell. Los Angeles Times Dec. 20, 2020.
14 Renwick D. COVID ‘Decimated Our Staff’ As The Pandemic Ravages Health Workers Of Color In US. Kaiser Health News Jan. 5, 2021.
15 Nix E. Tuskegee Experiment: The Infamous Syphilis Study. History.com Dec. 15, 2020.
16 Bryant M. Allegations Of Unwanted Ice Hysterectomies Recall Grim Time In US History. The Guardian Sept. 21, 2020.
17 Cornwall W. Just 50% Of Americans Plan To Get A COVID-19 Vaccine. Here’s How To Win Over The Rest. Science June 30, 2020.
18 Renwick D. COVID ‘Decimated Our Staff’ As The Pandemic Ravages Health Workers Of Color In US. Kaiser Health News Jan. 5, 2021.