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Forum Tackles Vaccine Hesitancy in the Black Community

Experts Speak Candidly About Vaccine Obstacles and Urge All to Get Vaccinated As Soon As Possible

Leading healthcare and faith leaders addressed key issues that are contributing to vaccine hesitancy in Black communities during a national online discussion this week, explaining that a lack of access to healthcare, concerns over vaccine safety, and religious beliefs are keeping many from getting COVID-19 vaccines.

The speakers, from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., came together for “COVID-19 Vaccine Talk,” an April 13 online event co-hosted by Cedars-Sinai and BlackDoctor.org.

"We're finding that even as accessibility is increasing, there is an increasing issue of hesitancy and fear— an, 'I’m not ready yet,' and, ‘I'll wait 'til later,' sentiment in the Black community,” said Kenneth C. Ulmer, DMin, PhD, bishop and senior pastor of the Faithful Central Bible Church and CEO of The Ulmer Institute in Los Angeles.

“There's a trust factor that is very important in terms of our leaders, in terms of Black doctors," Ulmer added. "All of these are now converging. We're trying to address it.”

Ulmer was joined in the forum by Elaine Batchlor, MD, MPH, chief executive officer of MLK Community Healthcare in Los Angeles, and B. Cameron Webb, MD, JD, senior policy advisor for Equity, the White House COVID-19 Response Team.

The event was the second in an ongoing series of conversations called “Embracing Our Community: LIVE!” sponsored by Cedars-Sinai to address vital issues affecting local communities. It was moderated by Nicole Mitchell, MBA, CDP, the Cedars-Sinai chief diversity and inclusion officer.

The vaccine discussion came as the nation struggles to quickly vaccinate as many Americans as possible amid concerns over a possible fourth wave of the coronavirus and ongoing alarm about unequal access to vaccines in vulnerable communities.

The panelists early on addressed the recent hold that U.S. health officials placed on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a one-shot option that many South Los Angeles residents have chosen. Six cases of rare and severe blood clots have been reported in the brain in women ages 18 to 48, one of whom died and all of whom had the vaccine. It is unknown whether the vaccine caused the clots. Webb said that while it is necessary for experts to assess if the clots are a potential side effect of the vaccine, it is not a cause for alarm.

“These cases are exceedingly rare,” Webb said. “It is important for us to track this down, but it doesn't mean that every person who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is at risk, and it certainly doesn't mean that you have anything to worry about if you got that vaccine.”

Webb said that other safety concerns about the vaccines have been exacerbated by the name “Operation Warp Speed,” the government's title for the race scientists undertook to create vaccinations. He told the panel that the name gave him pause, too.

“I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes in the beginning. I thought, ‘Take your time, get it right!’” Webb said. He added that he quickly switched gears after researching and discussing with experts the work scientists were leading.

Nevertheless, even if safety concerns can be overcome—a tall order, the panelists acknowledged—many residents of lower-income neighborhoods face steep access challenges. In California, for example, the online enrollment program for vaccine access and locations relies on computer access and skills that many seniors and others lack, Batchlor said. These barriers to care and a perception of a lack of access stoke mistrust.

Those who do manage to get appointments often face hurdles traveling to the sites. To ease that roadblock, local, state, and federal groups and agencies have deployed mobile vaccination units to underserved communities.

"We have a laser focus on getting folks in our community vaccinated," Batchlor said. "We know where the hot spots are, and we're going into the community giving vaccinations there—in your housing projects, grocery stores, Boys & Girls Clubs, churches or senior centers."

The White House Equity team is partnering with pharmacy chains and independent pharmacies to provide vaccines at their sites, “because pharmacists are some of the most trusted professionals in our communities,” Webb said.

But even when vaccinations are locally available, healthcare advocates face another, tougher obstacle in Black communities: religious beliefs, Ulmer said.

While a significant number of his parishioners now know how and where to get vaccinations, many tell Ulmer that they are “placing their trust in Jesus, they’re going to pray, the Lord’s got them covered,” he said. His reply is, “The Lord is responding by giving you a way to go down to the corner and get this shot.”

Each of the speakers reflected on what vaccines meant to them personally and why they had chosen to get vaccinated.

Webb said that he and his wife, an emergency department physician, got their shots at their hospital on the first day possible, in mid-December last year.

“We'd spent the previous nine months working on the front lines of the pandemic, coming face to face with this virus, day after day,” Webb said. “As soon as we got the vaccine, we felt some relief.”

Ulmer said that after his wife, children and he got the vaccination, he made a point of letting his congregation know that they had.

“I wanted to be out front with it,” he said.

For her part, Batchlor said that she was vaccinated as soon as her turn came up, and she was “thrilled” that the entire MLK staff—and their families—also were able to get vaccinations.

“I feel a big sense of relief and gratitude for this amazing gift that science has given us,” she said.

Batchlor now concentrates on educating South Los Angeles community members about the science and side effects of the vaccines and reminds residents to weigh the risk of a couple days’ discomfort, post-vaccination, versus the potentially severe complications of COVID-19.

She also has learned the virtue of patience.

“After constantly nagging my mother about getting a vaccine, I had to back off and let her come to the decision herself,” she said. “I was really surprised the other day when she told me, ‘You know, I'm ready now.’”

“I said, ‘Great. Let's do it tomorrow!’”

Read about COVID-19 vaccines on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: I’ve Been Fully Vaccinated: Now What?