'High volume of mistrust' awaits vaccine rollout in Rochester minority communities
Count the Rev. Jonathan McReynolds among those on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
He is leaning in favor, thinking not just of himself, but considering the health of his family and people in his circle.
But there is so much information to process. So many questions about a vaccine that developed so quickly. So much bad history that is cause for reluctance.
"I am undecided, to be honest with you," said McReynolds, who ministers to one of the city's largest Black congregations at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church. "I don't know if I'm there yet. But I am willing to be a vehicle (to connect people to information)."
On Wednesday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced plans for a task force to coordinate the vaccine rollout, community engagement and public education. Those efforts will build on work already begun, and emphasize citizen input to provide information and answers to concerns and questions about COVID-19 vaccinations.
"We need to share everything we know about this vaccine, and everything we don't know," said Dr. Nancy Bennett, co-founder and director of the University of Rochester Medical Center's Center for Community Health and Prevention, who will lead the task force along with Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health.
Both have lengthy resumes and community ties and "bring authenticity to the table," said Dr. Michael Mendoza, the county's public health commissioner.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of Black respondents polled would get the vaccine, the lowest of any ethnic group. Overall confidence has risen to more than 60%, the survey found.
Yet Black communities are among those suffering the most with the virus.
In Monroe County, rates of infection are highest in the African-American and Latino populations, University of Rochester Medical Center data show. Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to die from COVID.
"It’s a very complex subject," McReynolds said. "It is going to boil down to a very intense decision by people."
"I think it is going to be a leap of faith."
The hesitancy is deeply rooted in a traumatic history that saw populations of color used as unwitting test subjects in medical research. Add in health disparities, and individual experiences stemming from those; questions about long-term effects; unease over how rapidly the vaccine was developed; a national conversation too often devoid of facts; and a rapidly evolving onslaught of information about the virus and vaccine — it all can become too much to find a level of comfort.
In Rochester, as elsewhere, "there is a high volume of mistrust," said Cephas Archie, speaking from experience in helping lead a local, rapid response team focused on populations hardest hit by the pandemic.
The apprehension over vaccinations was "prevalent" a couple of months back during a series of free COVID testing and flu vaccine clinics at Aenon and other churches, said Archie, who also works as the city's chief equity officer.
Combating that is going to require a multi-faceted campaign, from a multitude of trusted community voices, Archie said, going on TV morning shows, on Black and Hispanic radio stations, doing Facebook town halls, drawing on experts, educating pastors and advocates, having well-known and trusted leaders get the vaccine live on air.
"It's going to be all of the above," Archie said. "We must take control of that narrative."
Differing opinions already are forming in the Black community.
- "Yeah I would take it," said Colby Shaw, 44. "I mean, 3,000 people died just yesterday. I never met a person that died from a vaccine."
- "I'm not getting it until much later, said Rose Stokes, 80. "I don't trust the first trials. But I would get it if Dr. Fauci took it. If he took it, that means it's safe, because he wouldn't intentionally harm people."
- "The death toll has given me enough reason to believe a vaccine is needed and should be taken by all," said Cheryle Hayward, 47. "However, I do plan on waiting to get the vaccine much later in the process in order to really understand its efficacy and impact on black folks — but most importantly to know more about any potential side effects"
“Any time you say ‘side effects,’ black folk are, ‘Oh my god, no,’” said Monroe County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, D-Rochester.
Flagler-Mitchell was listed with City Councilman Jose Peo as two of the lead organizers of march “against a careless COVID vaccine.” being planned for Jan. 1 in downtown Rochester. His name since has been removed, as he said he wouldn't be able to attend.
The “New Year, No Fear: Black Lives Matter” march is an extension of the opposition to government-mandated restrictions during the pandemic. Peo said neither he nor the march is anti-vaccine but anti-mandate, seeing the public health restrictions and the push for vaccinations as creating one.
Sit back and wait?
A Facebook post for the march raises concerns about the vaccine development, possible side effects and views any requirement for COVID vaccination, be it in schools, for travel or otherwise, as a violation of "God-given liberties." Peo, who also has spoken out against COVID testing in schools, said he supports those who have comorbidities, are older, or otherwise at risk getting vaccinated. But that isn’t him or his family.
“I have the time to sit back and wait,” Peo said, “to say let’s see what the results look like after a year or two.”
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, City Council President Loretta Scott said: "I am aware of the dangerous misinformation related to the vaccine that has been shared by people, including one of my own colleagues. I want to appeal to those in our community to listen to the experts, those in the medical field with the knowledge and experience. Dr. Angela Branche, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, dispelled many of these rumors today on WXXI’s Connections with Evan Dawson. She stated that zero people have died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and that the vaccine approval process was entirely in line with safety standards."
Scott continued: "If you have questions, ask your doctor or medical professionals, not those who think they know better on Facebook."
It was a rare public rebuke of a colleague.
Had Flagler-Mitchell joined the march, he said he would have spoken not just about the uncertainties, but also the toll COVID is taking on communities across the nation.
“Folks are dying at a rapid rate all over the United States,” he said. “I understand that. All of that stuff is battling through my mind.”
He expects he will get vaccinated, he said, or have to, for his family and his community. The former city firefighter is married to a nurse, who is immunocompromised and ready for the vaccine, as it will allow her to get back to work.
'Let's get to work'
"Fear is normal," Norwood said. "This is a fearful thing that has killed over 300,000 Americans. We meet fear with facts, and with fellowship and with togetherness."
And, he added: "This is not a mandatory vaccination. This is voluntary."
Success will require many voices providing accurate information and resources, and cannot just be a collective of elected and agency leaders, Norwood said. Everyone from doctors and ministers to barbers and hair stylists have responsibility, Norwood said.
Rochester Regional Health already has begun, joining with Black churches and others on virtual presentations and Q&As — though it likely will be months before the general public has access to the vaccine.
"We wanted to get ahead of this," said Deborah Stamps, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Rochester Regional. "It is so important, because it is going to come fast."
This isn't a sales pitch, Rochester Regional's director of diversity, equity and inclusion Ebony Caldwell said of their developing program: "We are not telling people that they should take the vaccine."
Rather, it is a conversation, tailored to each audience but focused on Black, Hispanic/Latino and deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. A session last week began by acknowledging disparities, mistrust and that past trauma, and went on to discuss safe practices, provide information about the virus, how it spreads, symptoms, and context for how the vaccine was developed and tested, how it works, side effects.
Stamps helps lead the sessions, and shares her own story of being COVID positive.
Early questions have been about monitoring, whether people with chronic conditions should get the vaccine, or people is those who have already had COVID, or never had symptoms, should be vaccinated.
There have been questions about mandates, about what is in the vaccine, possible reactions or interactions or impacts on other medications and conditions.
"It is going to take multiple conversations," Stamps said, "multiple times, in multiple venues."
At Rochester Regional, like at UR Medicine, there also have been internal sessions, talking with health care professionals and staff, medical school faculty and students — those who are being given priority, to be among the first wave to get vaccinated and have many of the same questions.
"Over the coming months we have a historic opportunity," Norwood said. "This is going to be a tough task and I have no illusions about how tough it will be.
"Let's get to work."
Includes reporting by staff writer Robert Bell.