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Vaccine hesitancy is still an issue for many African Americans

Mistrust of the U.S. health system discourages many African Americans from taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Health officials around the country are working to reverse declining vaccination rates. Recent data shows roughly a quarter of Americans are not inclined to get a COVID vaccine. That number is believed to be higher, but improving, in the African American community, according to several studies.

According to the Associated Press, a March poll conducted by The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research "found that about 24% of Black American adults said they will probably or definitely not get vaccinated. That's down from 41% in January. The latest number shows Black Americans leaning against getting shots in almost the same proportion as white Americans at 26% and Hispanic Americans at 22%."

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Cle Jackson, president of the Greater Grand Rapids Chapter of the NAACP, says those numbers ring true to him. However, he acknowledges reluctance to be vaccinated could have dire consequences for a community that already faces disproportionately poor health outcomes.

"Here's the deal, the bigger issue is that it's overloading our hospital systems. And that is a major issue. So, we have got to get a handle on this and get this under control. There's just been too many people dying, you know, as a result of this," said Jackson. 

Vaccine hesitancy among African Americans has been linked to medical mistrust, which is prevalent among Black Americans, as a result of systemic racism. 

"You know, when you think about the level of care that, sometimes, we received as Black Americans and brown folks, it is different. You know there are discriminatory practices throughout this whole medical institution, when you talk about delivering medical care to certain folks," says Jackson, who, in addition to working in civil rights, has worked in healthcare for his entire professional career. 

"And so, I think just all of that, coupled together and people are like 'no, we're going to hold off. We're going to wait a little bit. We're going to let other people be the guinea pigs, per se. That's what they're saying."

Jackson says the recent problems with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine only increase fears and skepticism.

"I think this whole J & J fiasco just set us back. It really did," he says. "You know there has been a noticeable change in the numbers. Folks who were wanting to get the two shots [Pfizer and Moderna] went to get the first one, and then never went back for a second shot and many may not go back at all. 

"These are people who wanted to get the shot, but now, this raises the eyebrow for, quite honestly, for all of us. But we need to push through this. This virus is going to be around, in my opinion, for a while. And, people can still get sick. People are still dying, daily.  And so, if we don't do something to prevent it, then absolutely we are going to see devastation."

In West Michigan, several organizations, including the Greater Grand Rapids Chapter of the NAACP, have spent months educating members of the Black community in hopes of removing any barriers. And Jackson says vaccine hesitancy is just one obstacle.

"I've been on the ground trying to make sure that people are aware of different vaccination opportunities and really have information to make an informed choice. But, what I've been seeing is there are a whole lot of people, especially in the Black community and Brown communities, who actually wanted to get the vaccine, but there were barriers or there were issues with them getting into certain clinics," he said. "Technology has been a barrier as well. When you look at Vaccinate West Michigan, and you have to call this number, or go online to enroll, how does all of that work? Many folks, especially seniors and low wealth folks, don't have access to technology."

He says they are working to improve communication about clinics and access.

"We have to put communication out to communities to give them a two week lead time, because you know transportation is an issue. We have to plan to get some of these things rolling. So, those are some of the things that we are recognizing and people have talked about."

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