When Gov. Ned Lamont got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this week, he asked local leaders to go to communities of color and tell them to “step up and do the right thing.”
Lamont got the shot at Bloomfield’s First Cathedral, a church led by Black pastors. Because the state isn’t doing as well vaccinating people of color as it is white Connecticut residents, Lamont and other officials spoke directly to Black people about the importance of getting vaccinated.
And they did it with a heavy concentration on vaccine hesitancy -- the assumption that people are reluctant to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons.
Though the governor might mean well, Dr. Wizdom Powell, director of the University of Connecticut’s Health Disparities Institute, said his framing was a missed opportunity.
“We’re talking over communities of color right now,” Powell said. “We’re presuming a lot about what communities of color want and need to get to a decision place that would truly represent their desires around vaccine uptake.”
Speaker after speaker focused on the issue of vaccine hesitancy among communities of color, with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson bringing up the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as a reason Black people don’t trust medical professionals. Powell said that ignores a lot more recent history.
“They don’t have to look back to Tuskegee for evidence that systems may or may not treat them unfairly on the basis of their race or ethnicity because it’s happening every day,” Powell said.
For Powell, focusing all the attention on vaccine hesitancy is fighting the wrong war -- it's more about ensuring that every community has adequate vaccine distribution.
“We cannot talk about people not wanting to get a vaccine and dealing with trustworthiness when people don’t have access to it equitably to begin with,” Powell said.
The state can still tackle vaccine hesitancy while aiming for vaccine equity, but Powell said officials need to do it the right way: Invite Black people into the conversation, perhaps through a community forum where officials connect them to medical experts who can answer their vaccine-related questions.
“Listen to their concerns and also their desires in this moment,” Powell said.
As it stands, there’s a lot of work to do -- something the governor’s acknowledged.
Rather than pushing what Powell calls the “meta-narrative” that presumes the lag in vaccination rates is because of hesitancy, she says the state ought to first focus on getting the shots into the arms of those who need it the most.