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Doctor addresses deep-rooted skepticism in African American communities with COVID vaccine

Faith leaders of black congregations working to ease hesitancy of getting the vaccine
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Posted at 2:45 PM, Feb 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-21 15:04:12-05

INDIANAPOLIS — As of Saturday, about 420,000 Hoosiers have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Yet only about 4% of those vaccinated are African American.

Dr. Tronya Hawkins is an OBGYN with Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis and is well aware many of her Black patients feel wart about getting the vaccine because of past medical experiments in the African American community. She said despite what has happened in the past, she believes getting this vaccine is the safest option for Black Hoosiers and she hopes other leaders in the Indy community will share the same message.

"In the African American community, there is mistrust, there is concern and there is worry," Hawkins said. "Quite often they will confess or admit, they will like lower their glasses and look at me and say, 'Should we really be getting this vaccine?' A lot of the hesitancy comes from the mistrust of African Americans in the medical community."

It is a common discussion Hawkins is having with her African American patients.

"I don't have to tell you but you are obviously aware of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment," Hawkins said. "Some women of color were given sterilization procedures or hysterectomies against their will in the past. There are reasons that individuals would feel with the idea of potentially taking this brand new, fresh out the box treatment but really it is here to help us because really we are being plagued by this condition pretty severely."

Hawkins is vaccinating patients in their Ascension St. Vincent clinic and she wants to see more Black Hoosiers getting their vaccine

"This vaccine is here to protect us, it is here to keep us safe," Hawkins said. "So those of you who suffer from medical conditions, we are talking about obesity, which is very common in the Black community. Hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, you are at increased risk, increased risk of severe disease and that is why in my opinion, the low numbers are very concerning to me."

The OBGYN trusts the vaccine, she has already gotten both doses and encourages others to get theirs too.

"All it needs to do is help your body develop a response and not a response is going to make you identify it when you come in contact with it again and make it less likely to make you very sick," Hawkins said. "And that is the whole goal with this vaccine. We are trying to decrease death and decrease severe illness."

It is one thing to hear this message from a medical professional, Hawkins said it is going to take other leaders in the community to make their voices heard as well. Leaders that people trust, like faith leaders.

"Unfortunately this virus has disproportionately affected the African American community and we have lost members," said Rev. Clarence C. Moore, lead pastor at New Era Church in Indianapolis.

Moore is no stranger to loss during the pandemic.

"Within three weeks period, I lost a mentor and a mentee," Moore said. "So it has been a very difficult time to navigate. And each of those cases you find families have been so lonely, they can't be with their loved ones, it is just a devastating time and I think the only reason, the only way we are going to get beyond this horror is that we get as many people vaccinated as possible."

Even with so many families suffering illness and loss during the pandemic, Moore said he was surprised to find out many members of his church were skeptical of the vaccine and not planning on getting it.

"A considerable amount of people of our congregation are saying they are not going to take the vaccine," Moore said. "And so we started inquiring. They felt like the vaccine came along too quickly. They didn't trust the messenger of the vaccine coming along as fast as it did. And then the historicity of, in case of experiments, of not knowing that."

Moore and his team are working to ease those concerns by trying a different strategy to share this message.

"What I have been doing, my wife and I, we both got both of our shots," Moore said. "I made both of my shots public and I created that sermon to whomever would listen about why it is very important that we put aside all the misnomers and the misinformation. Also, we have put together a health team of professionals. They have assured a lot of our church members that there is efficacy and there is safety in taking the vaccine."

Faith leaders and medical leaders, like Hawkins, just want the best for our Hoosier community.

"For those people who are hesitant or don't understand, ultimately our goal is to educate," Hawkins said. "I can't force you to do anything. You are important. You have to educate yourself, don't listen to something that you heard from a friend, don't listen to something that someone said at the barbershop or the beauty salon. You have to find out what is best for you. That means calling your provider, finding out what risks you have to have this disease, and get vaccinated. Everyone has this COVID fatigue and we are ready to get back to normal. This is helping us get back to normal. And when you are able to, please, by all means, sign up, get yourself treated, like I said, I am double shot vaccinated. I am super excited about it and I want you to have that same degree of excitement to help protect yourself and your family."

Ascension St. Vincent has been tackling internal racial equality in healthcare. ABIDE is Ascension's System-wide and sustained commitment to celebrating our shared humanity, leading with inclusion and advocating for justice through the ABIDE framework (Appreciation - Belongingness - Inclusivity - Diversity - Equity).

ABIDE is designed to invite ongoing dialogue and thoughtful action to help uncover what we need to leverage, review and reconsider in our policies, practices, and ways of working to eliminate what contributes to or perpetuates disparities and inequities so that we can create a more inclusive and diverse culture and workplace.

"As an organization, I feel like we have a foot forward in regards of trying to improve the communication as well as the action," Hawkins said. "It is not just about talking, it is about doing a better job at being inclusive in this community."

Once the vaccine becomes available with more volume of it, Moore said he hopes the vaccine be brought into black churches, like New Era Church. He says people might feel more safe coming into the church in their neighborhood to get the vaccine.

In the meantime, New Era Church is working on putting together teams at the church to pick up seniors and others in their congregation to drive them to and from the vaccine clinics and also help them register for the shot.