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SC News

Misinformation and Mistrust Collide for Black South Carolinians Considering the COVID Vaccine

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The African-American community’s best and most trusted resource is often itself.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, that can actually be a problem.

“We are being misled by ourselves,” said Deborah Whitaker, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina and member of Black Lives Matter-Rock Hill, during a recent online information symposium by NAACP-Rock Hill. “We talk to each other, but we don’t go to the people who know about our bodies. If you trust your doctor, talk to your doctor.”

Whitaker’s statement bears a lot of weight – from the history of African-American mistrust of the medical establishment (in particular, vaccines) to the need to move past fears and skepticism in the wake of a global pandemic.

At the heart of what Whitaker said, however, is the danger of getting medical information in the form of memes – shared online by familiar (and trusted) members of the community who are rarely qualified doctors and scientists.

And for a community whose population is so disproportionately affected by the ravages of COVID-19 – African-Americans are at least twice as likely as white Americans to die from the disease – the consequences of vaccine paranoia are no joke.

What Fears Do Black South Carolinians Have and Why?

Whitaker has heard a lot of things from Black friends her age: “It’s going to change my DNA. I don’t want them putting that in my arm. I don’t believe that the virus is as bad as they say it is.”

Jendaya Fleming, a 22-year-old media student at Winthrop University, has encountered worse on social media platforms.

“My friends and family post certain things about how they feel like they’re being targeted,” Fleming said.

Translation: The effort to vaccinate Black people is a way of “trying to erase us,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of my family members say they’re not taking it until they see everyone take it.”

Such morbid fears of racial genocide have deep roots.

“There’s a lot of mistrust,” Whitaker said, “which is understandable because of some things that have gone on in the community.”

A main root of the mistrust African-Americans have for the medical community boils down to one word:

“Tuskegee,” said Dr. Jane Kelly, assistant epidemiologist for the State of South Carolina. “Tuskegee was the infamous syphilis study in which there were African-American men who were identified as having syphilis. This was in the 1930s, when there was no treatment.”

The Tuskegee experiments started as a six-month study but went on for 30 years. Without consent, Black men were infected with syphilis or told they were being treated when they were not.

The incident is among the most infamous and damaging failures of ethics in modern medicine. When uncovered, medical ethics and systems of safeguards were established to keep such a study from ever happening again, Dr. Kelly said, but the damage was done, and that damage is severe. Black communities fearful of the medical establishment frequently cite Tuskegee as a touchstone for their reason not to get a needle of anything shot into their arms.

Less sinister, but still damaging, Dr. Kelly said, are the effects of misdiagnosis. There is much research showing that well-intentioned doctors of one ethnicity, say Caucasian, misinterpret medical issues among people of a different ethnicity.

The most stark example tied to the coronavirus is the story of Dr. Susan Moore, a 52-year-old Black Indiana woman who was released from the hospital during a COVID-19 attack in December, then died after being readmitted 12 hours later. Some of her last words were accusations of racism, saying the hospital staff did not take her as seriously as they would a white patient.

Dr. Kelly said these kinds of misinterpretations need to be worked on, and that they are, but again, the damage to a vulnerable community in the time of a pandemic is immense.

Social Media Is Not a Doctor

Amid the suspicions Black Americans have about vaccinations and doctors, there is the other pandemic we’re all living through – misinformation and its uglier cousin, disinformation. Fleming regularly sees videos and memes posted by family members of African-Americans suffering Bell’s palsy (a usually temporary facial paralysis) or some kind of hand paralysis after getting the COVID vaccine.

While these incidents might be true reactions to the COVID vaccine – though many might not be – there are things to keep in mind. According to the CDC, reactions of any kind to the COVID vaccine are rare, on the order of five incidents per every one million doses given so far. Most of those are anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction usually treatable on the spot with a dose of epinephrine (which is why you need to hang around for 15 minutes after getting vaccinated).

But as with every vaccine, there are people who will react to it. So far, the CDC reports that reactions of any kind are on par with those of reactions to other vaccines, and generally occur in people with preexisting susceptibility to vaccines or conditions.

But even if there is a chance of having a bad reaction – which there always is, even though it’s slight – Dr. Kelly urges people to do some rational math.

“If you’re going to look at your risk of receiving vaccine and worry about something that’s five in a million,” she said, “I would ask you to also look at how many people have died of SARS-CoV-2.”

As of late-January 2021, that number in the United States is above 400,000. Worldwide, it’s over 2.5 million.

What to Know About the Vaccine Itself

If you can get past the conspiracy theories that the COVID vaccine is some kind of elaborate genocide plot and the one about it being a ruse to microchip us all, the science behind the vaccine is solid.

One of the worries Apostle Norma Gray, president of NAACP-Rock Hill, spoke about during the organization’s first vaccine information session Jan. 14 is the fear that the vaccine was developed way too fast, in less than a year.

It sounds like a valid concern, given that vaccines usually take a decade or more to crack. But the NAACP info session had two (Black) doctors – Roosevelt Daniel and Jacques Days, a pediatrician and a family practice physician, respectively, of Rock Hill – who repeatedly stated that the COVID vaccine was not developed in a few months.

“We’ve been working on this technology to try to make a vaccine for a coronavirus … since about 2002,” said Dr. Daniel.

The current coronavirus that has shut down the world is the long-expected “Disease X” that virologists have been trying to head off for 18 years. In 2002, 29 countries, most in Asia, were hit with SARS, a respiratory coronavirus disease that over a year-and-a-half infected 8,098 people worldwide and killed 774.

Those numbers seem almost quaint compared to the tens of millions of cases and millions of deaths COVID-19 has wrought, and we’re still far from through with this pandemic. But those numbers from 2002-4 rattled virologists, who feared that a worse, more contagious, and equally incurable coronavirus could strike.

So scientists began working on a coronavirus vaccine a year before Facebook was launched. They just didn’t have anything urgent propelling them after SARS died out in 2004. The MERS and H1-N1 outbreaks a few years later got things moving, but until something forced scientists’ hands, Dr. Daniel said, progress on a coronavirus vaccine was slow.

But steady.

“This pandemic came and put enough pressure, politically and financial, on us to move forward with this,” he said. “These vaccines have been worked on and researched for almost 18 years now.”

Another misconception the doctors addressed is that the vaccine is like old-school vaccines – in which a small amount of the disease itself is put into a human body so that the immune system can learn to recognize it as an enemy and then destroy it next time it shows up.

But the COVID vaccine is an mRNA, or “messenger” RNA, formula that does not put the live virus into the body.

“The only portion of the virus that is being introduced by the vaccine is that spike protein that helps the virus enter the cell,” Dr. Daniel said.

Think of it like a chauffeur. He doesn’t get on the plane, he just drives the virus to the airport. That chauffeur is what’s in an mRNA vaccine. And the immune system is like airport security, which knows what the car looks like and can head it off before it pulls up to the gate.

And it doesn't change your DNA. mRNA vaccines are extremely fragile, which is why the CIVID vaccine is kept so cold until use. Once in the body, it essentially hands over the intel about the chauffeur's car and then quietly dies.

“The [Operation] Warp Speed idea built on the premise that some studies had been done on these other viruses,” said Dr. Days.

COVID’s genetic sequence is slightly different from those of previous coronaviruses, but “all [virologists] had to do was tweak the genetic sequence,” Dr. Days said, “and use some of the information that they gathered from the other viruses. They had a head start.”

What the doctors want people, Black or not, to understand is that the COVID vaccine is based on sound science and is safe.

Repeat: Social Media Is Not a Doctor

Gray makes a regular point that she is not trying to convince anyone to take the vaccine. She will be “rolling up my sleeve” when it’s her turn in a few months, but she understands some people will just never take it.

To those people, she says, “Have an alternate plan.”

That boils down mainly to what most of us have been doing for the past year – wearing a mask and staying out of crowds.

Dr. Kelly understands the point and agrees that until we hit that critical herd immunity (which will be made possible far sooner with the vaccine), everyone should keep following mask, hygiene, and social distancing guidelines.

But, she said, consider that if you don’t take the vaccine, your Plan-B will just be more of the same thing that we’ve all grown to hate.

For Gray, it’s not so much about objections to taking a vaccine, it’s about making sure that your reasons for not wanting to take it are based in truths, facts, and reality, not in social media garbage or stuff you find on a search engine.

“The truth of the matter is, this vaccine is scientifically proven based on fact,” Gray said. “Not fiction, not propaganda. And I need all of you to dig deeper than Google.”

  • To learn more about the COVID vaccine schedule in South Carolina and to register for a vaccination appointment as more become available, visit the state Department of Health and Environmental Control at scdhec.gov/covid19/covid-19-vaccine.
  • To learn more about the COVID vaccine, visit the Centers for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html.
  • To register for NAACP-Rock Hill’s COVID vaccine information symposia, visit this link.
  • To bust COVID vaccine myths, visit Johns Hopkins University’s ‘Myths vs. Facts’ page.
  • To avoid an ocean of BS that could be harmful, do not visit social media sites for information about the COVID vaccine – unless you’re visiting a real news or public health source that is pointing you towards qualified, vetted information.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio.