Grandparents may hold key to overcoming COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Sunita Sohrabji/Special to Trice Edney News Wire from Ethnic Media Services | 10/14/2021, 6 p.m.
Black seniors who themselves are vaccinated could be the trusted messengers the community needs to push the COVID-19 vaccination, public ...

Black seniors who themselves are vaccinated could be the trusted messengers the community needs to push the COVID-19 vaccination, public health experts said at a recent news briefing.

“In the Black community, grandparents hold a place of high respect,” said pediatrician Dr. Michael A. LeNoir, board chair of the African American Wellness Project.

“The grandmothers, in my opinion, hold the Black community together. So if the grandparent is telling the young, ‘You need to go get vaccinated. I got vaccinated, you need to go get vaccinated,’ there’s not a lot of discussion. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said at the news briefing that was jointly organized by Ethnic Media Services and California Black Media.

Older African-Americans are much more open to the discussion of vaccines than younger African-Americans, Dr. LeNoir said. He noted that Black parents are holding themselves and their children back from getting vaccinated because of fears of possible negative side effects from the shot.

An estimated 48 percent of Black Californians are fully vaccinated, compared to 58 percent of the state’s population at large. In California, Black people comprise 5 percent of the population, but make up 7 percent of the state’s deaths from COVID-19, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, chief medical officer for the Watts Healthcare Corp. in Los Angeles and a former president of the National Medical Association, said Black people are less likely to get vaccinated because of a lack of access to vaccination sites, missing a day of work to get a shot and possibly more days if there are side effects. Few are actually anti-vaxxers, he said.

Black Americans also have been mistreated by the health care system and thus rightly have a distrust of it, Dr. Brooks said.

“Blacks have been mistreated by the medical system for as long as we have been in this country, going back to the enslaved,” he said, noting that medical schools would use Black bodies as cadavers for college anatomy classes.

Sterilizations were forced upon Black women in the South. And the Tuskegee experiment — also known as the U.S. Public Health Service experiment in Alabama — denied treatment for syphilis to Black males for four decades to assess the impact of the disease when it goes untreated.

In the present day, African-Americans are less likely to get cardiac studies and procedures or treatment for pain. “This is all documented. So I want it to be clear that the mistrust with the medical system is valid,” Dr. Brooks said.

Former California state legislator Cheryl R. Brown, co-founder of Black Voice News, discussed the necessity of trusted messengers as she introduced the Rev. Steven Shepard, pastor of St. Paul AME Church in San Bernardino, Calif.

“He didn’t really want to get a vaccination at first,” she said of Rev. Shepard. “But he would always talk about how tired he was. He would always talk about he couldn’t keep his eyes open, how he had lost his sense of taste.”

In a call to the county hospital, a doctor spoke to Rev. Shepard and told him to go to the hospital right away. “Five days later, the doctor looked at him and said, ‘You know, people come in your condition, they don’t generally walk out.’

“The pastor is convinced now that this is something that’s very important for us as African-Americans, and he has gone all out. His leadership is what’s changing the trajectory of this vaccine in our community,” Ms. Brown said.

“I was on the COVID doorstep of death,” Rev. Shepard said. “I did not want to get the vaccine because of some of the issues that both doctors had discussed, and how we’re treated every day when we go into doctors’ offices or to ER rooms.”

But historically, the Black church has served as the epicenter for bringing about positive change in the community, Rev. Shepard continued.

“When I was released from the hospital, I felt it was my job to make sure that our community had the right information. The Bible tells us that our people perish for lack of knowledge. I was so into dealing with what happened in the past, that I did not take the time to realize the science behind the vaccine,” he said.

Alva Brannon, who recently became fully vaccinated, said that she has a distrust of the health care system because her father was part of the Tuskegee experiment and did not get treated for his syphilis. Ms. Brannon contracted syphilis in utero and lost her vision in childhood. Her mother had to get a court order so that she could receive a corneal transplant.

Ms. Brannon said when her doctor asked her to get vaccinated against COVID-19, she initially said no, believing the vaccine would harm her. But a few days later, she got a call from her church, which had set up a vaccination site to administer the single dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

“I accepted that as a symbol of God and that it was time,” she said, adding that she then encouraged her children and relatives to get vaccinated as well.