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Black Health Care Coalition Wants To Teach 45,000 In Kansas City About The Coronavirus Vaccine

Community health workers at Swope Health Central perform drive-thru coronavirus screening tests.
Vickie Newton
KCUR 89.3
Community health care workers at Swope Health Center perform drive-thru coronavirus screening tests.

Area medical professionals believe vaccinating Black Kansas Citians will be critical to curbing the pandemic in the area.

Some health care experts in Kansas City consider the new coronavirus vaccines a light at the end of the tunnel, but many in the African American community may need more convincing.

That includes family members of medical professionals like Dr. Nevada Lee, who was surprised and scared by the skepticism some of her loved ones expressed about getting the vaccine.

“That frightened amazement inspired me to volunteer to get as much accurate information as possible to the people in our community,” she said in an online media briefing on Monday.

Lee has joined a new push to get information about the vaccines to 45,000 African Americans in the area. Kansas City’s Black Health Care Coalition and a team of Black medical professionals are heading up the effort.

“(People are) making critical decisions about taking risks to prevent COVID-19 … and about getting vaccinated based upon rumors, based upon political plots, based on internet scare tactics and viral social media chains,” Lee said.

The coalition’s effort to reverse that trend began with the briefing, and continues tomorrow evening with a public Facebook Live event. Coalition President Melissa Robinson, who represents the 3rd District on the Kansas City Council, said they also plan to meet later this week with local religious leaders.

Vaccination concerns

Lee, an internal medicine specialist, said the most common cause for concern centered on potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, but that any downsides to the vaccine would be outweighed by the positives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says potential side effects include pain and swelling at the injection site along with fever, chills, headache and fatigue. But these should go away after a few days.

Another common reason for concern that Lee has heard is the speed with which the vaccine was developed. Several vaccines had encouraging large trial results in about 10 months, a historic pace.

Jeremiah Young, 11, receives one of a series of vaccinations during his back-to-school physical exam with Dr. Janice Bacon, Aug. 14, 2020, while at the Community Health Care Center on the Tougaloo College campus in Tougaloo, Miss. A Black primary care physician practicing in Mississippi for nearly four decades, Bacon works at an all-African American-run trio of community health centers in Hinds County, where the population is overwhelmingly Black — and where the most coronavirus cases have been reported in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis
A student receives a vaccination during his back-to-school physical exam on Aug. 14. Side effects of the new coronavirus vaccines are comparable to those for the flu vaccine.

Dr. Leslie Fields, board chair of the Greater Kansas City Medical Association, noted the diversity of the study groups involved in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

“Both of them had about 10% Black participants and about 20% Hispanic participants,” Fields said. “All indications are that this is a very safe process.”

Since the end of summer, the number of African Americans who say they will definitely or probably get a vaccine when it becomes available to them has risen from 42% to 62%, Lee said. But that's still short of the 70% mark needed to make the community resistant to the coronavirus.

"The country as a whole will not be able to curb the virus through community immunity without Black people participating and getting the vaccine," she said.

African Americans in Kansas and Missouri are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Lee said, not only are they more likely to contract the disease, they are more likely to die from it. A systemic lack of access to medical care also plays a role.

“Most of us know somebody in our community who has already died or is critically ill,” she said.

Councilwoman Robinson said barriers to quarantining — like not being able to work from home and not being able to take time off from work — also put some African Americans at increased risk for infection.

Dr. Jasper Fuller, also on the board of the Black Health Care Coalition, said the history of mistrust between African Americans and the medical research community is well-founded. He worked as an orderly at the Tuskegee Institute, where the notorious 1932 penicillin experiments happened.

In that study, doctors let Black men die of syphilis by not informing them of their illness and intentionally withholding treatment. The study had an initial timeline of six months but lasted 40 years. Unethical medical research involving Black Americans has been conducted by highly esteemed academic institutions as recently as the 1990s.

Events like these make African Americans understandably hesitant to be "guinea pigs," as Lee put it.

“But for many of them, it’s really an excuse,” she said. “And in many cases, the excuses that are being given are not good enough.”

For his part, Fuller said medical research reforms have worked, and past misdeeds are unlikely to repeat themselves.

“Now we have a new day. We need to trust the vaccine, and encourage Blacks to get the shot,” he said.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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