The timeline on a COVID-19 vaccine is generally unknown, but whether one is approved this year or the next, Wizdom Powell said it won’t help much if Black residents lack confidence in its safety and effectiveness.
“There’s so many stories of Black folks surrendering their bodies to medical institutions and coming out worse after,” said Powell, who is director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health.
Public health experts and advocates say Connecticut needs to figure out how to gain trust and confidence from people in Black communities when it comes time to distributing and administering a future COVID-19 vaccine. But a history of medical malice and unethical experimentation on Black people, dating back all the way to slavery, can serve as a major barrier.
Appearing on a virtual roundtable Monday night hosted by state Sen. Doug McCrory, Powell said that’s on top of the ongoing systemic racism in health care that people continue to experience daily.
“We have to face that elephant in the room if we’re really going to move populations toward vaccinations that, first of all, have been taken through the appropriate clinical trials,” she said, “but also that give people the comfort to imagine that those medications will actually bring them more healing rather than harm.”
Scientists agree that transparency and diversity in vaccine trials are key. Nearly a dozen COVID-19 vaccines globally are being tested on humans in large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials.
Dr. Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health, said evidence from these trials is most significant when it comes from testing a participant pool that reflects the diversity in the general population so that it ultimately benefits everyone.
Medical trials have gotten better at this over the years, but there’s a documented history of missing the mark.
“Bottom line is, if we don’t get it right this time, this is going to be our failure,” Ko said.
Connecticut last week submitted a draft plan on statewide COVID-19 mass vaccination to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which outlined potential priority groups and populations that would receive vaccines early on.
Gov. Ned Lamont recently created a COVID-19 vaccine advisory group to make recommendations on this plan in efforts to create equitable access to vaccines and ways to combat vaccine hesitancy.
Rev. Robyn Anderson, executive director of the Ministerial Health Fellowship and pastor of Blackwell AME Zion Church in Hartford, is a member of the group’s communication subcommittee.
She said faith leaders can often use their relationships with their communities to provide people with information and education.
Anderson said personal testimonials can go a long way, too. She herself participated in a clinical trial for treatment of a rare eye disease -- it was successful in preventing complete blindness.
“Messages like that, being able to give back to the community from people who have actually been part of clinical trials, are so important as well,” she said, “and to share that information with others and what that’s like and that it is safe.”
But Trevor Johnson said messaging and communication need to reach beyond houses of worship and other selected settings.
Johnson, a lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at Central Connecticut State University, said outreach plans need to be more inclusive in order to reach Black people of all ages, faiths and geographical areas, and get their input directly.
He also said a COVID-19 vaccine isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to existing health disparities and inequities, which set the stage for the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities.
The age-adjusted rate of COVID-19 associated deaths in Connecticut is highest among non-Hispanic Black residents, according to state data.
“When we look at this pandemic, we saw quickly that the government could mobilize resources to attack a serious problem, and we saw trillions of dollars moving toward this cause,” Johnson said. “And some of us wondered, why wasn’t the same commitment put on what was happening in brown communities that we’ve known for so long?"
Johnson said what’s happening in the pandemic should drive motivation to address greater socioeconomic and systemic shortfalls, most often felt by Black residents and other people of color.
“We need to focus on those other things, we need to look at those environmental factors,” he said. "[Absence of] fresh food in our grocery stores -- this is not COVID, but it is.”