Doctors concerned about distrust of COVID-19 vaccine in African-American community

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — With just days before a new phase of COVID-19 vaccinations begins, the issue of medical mistrust among many in the African-American community remains.

“I serve a patient population that’s 90 plus percent African-American and I hear a lot of skepticism about taking the vaccine,” said Dr. Carla Harwell, Medical Director of University Hospitals Otis Moss Jr. Health Center.

“I fear that as we move forward into the next phases, as the vaccine will become more available to the general public that a lot of people of color will choose not to participate,” she said.

Dr. Harwell said patients point to a history of distrust rooted in fact. Often cited is the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said initially 600 Black men were involved. They were told they had “bad blood,” they did not receive proper medical treatment for their illness and were studied without their informed consent for 40 years between 1932 to 1972.

“My father was a hero to our family,” said Lillie Tyson Head of Virginia.

Tyson Head is one of many descendants of the men involved in the study who helped create the non-profit Voices For Our Father’s Legacy Foundation. 

Her father Freddie Tyson was a carpenter by trade and firefighter. He was newly wed when the study began. Tyson had congenital syphilis and spent a large part of his life as a part of the study. She believes he became aware of the truth and his participation at the age of 67.

“Anger, dismay, shame but my father was a spiritual man and he was quite old,” she said. “He was able to tell us that there was nothing he could do about what had been done to him and all of the other men, but what we had to do was to make sure that it didn’t happen again.”

Evella Gaston-Mack of Cleveland is the great-granddaughter of Will Gaston who was also part of the study. She lived with him as a child before eventually moving to Cleveland and still has fond memories.

“I remember lots of things about him… they called him ‘dough belly,'” she said. 

Gaston said she is unsure about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is all so new, it’s just a trust issue that I have it’s the only thing I can tell you, it’s a trust issue,” she said.

Dr. Harwell said she understands the mistrust and encourages patients to stay informed about the facts of the vaccine.

“We’re dying at rates very disproportionate to our Caucasian counterparts, we have these underlying co-morbidities that put us at an increased risk for a worse outcome,” said Dr. Harwell.

Tyson Head said she is honored her father and the hundreds of men like him are being remembered but she encouraged others not to fear a COVID-19 vaccination.

“We have the opportunity to get the vaccine,” she said. “We have more information. We’re being told where the men were not told, they were not informed.”

The fallout from the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee resulted in a class action lawsuit, presidential apology, and a law changing government practices to better protect people taking part in research.

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