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How Real Information is Turning Black Vaccine Hesitancy Around in South Carolina

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State efforts to address African-Americans' vaccine hesitancy are starting to pay off. But so is the desire of many Black South Carolinians to just get back to life.

A few months ago, just before the COVID-19 vaccine hit the first upper arms, African-Americans were wrapped up in a whole set of problems – they were disproportionately affected by the worst of the virus; they were the targets of terrifying misinformation; and they carried a longstanding, deep-rooted mistrust of doctors, scientists, and vaccinations of any kind.

A lot has changed in two or three short months. While the rates of vaccine shots entering African-American arms does remain lower than that for white arms, about 285,000 shots administered in South Carolina (as of April 21) have gone to African-Americans, according to data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. That’s roughly 20 percent of the state’s Black population; about 28 percent of South Carolina’s white population has been vaccinated at least once.

Four months into a national vaccination campaign that’s moved considerably faster than originally projected, more Black South Carolinians say they’ve gone from being vaccine skeptics to vaccinated residents. Much of the reason, say residents like Shirley Scott of Greenville, has to do with hearing reality – steady streams of facts from trusted sources like NAACP, state and federal health officials, and news media – rather than only hearing the morbid fears of a scared public.

But turnaround in the Black community also has to do with family members talking about getting vaccinated. Scott says she entered 2021 hesitant about getting a shot because she was concerned with how quickly the vaccine made an appearance (which is untrue, as scientists have been developing a coronavirus vaccine since 2003) and uncertainty about how many African-Americans were actually part of the vaccine trials.

Her 31-year-old son telling her he was getting vaccinated as soon as he could compelled Scott to dig deeper than what she’d been hearing in casual conversations. Once she started attending webcasts by NAACP that included prominent (and usually Black) doctors, her doubts gave way to an interest in getting vaccinated. She says hearing real doctors and healthcare professionals separate myth from fact made the difference.

The breaking of myths and misinformation, says Greenville City Councilwoman (and city NAACP chapter secretary) Lillian Brock Flemming, pairs well with explanations about the role African-Americans played in developing the vaccines available in the U.S. right now. A chronic problem for drug trials of all kinds is a lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

But Black participants made up nearly 10 percent of both the Pfizer and Moderna trials (which had 40,277 and 27,817 overall participants, respectively, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation). African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, so the trials populations were not significantly disproportional.

Getting that kind of message through, says Flemming, was key to changing Black minds about the perceived dangers of the vaccines.

For state health officials, the growing acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines in the African-American community is evidence that their efforts to reach Black South Carolinians where they live and interact socially were the right call.

Dr. Jane Kelly, South Carolina’s assistant state epidemiologist, says the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) work with faith-based communities, African-American church leaders, community leaders, HBCUs, and the Black Legislative Caucus are helping to slice through the thicket of misinformation.

Kelly also says health officials have learned a lot about how to provide people with more options. At first, the DHEC approach was to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers and residents of senior homes – people in contained areas. As more of the general public began to qualify for a shot, they needed to make appointments – largely only available online, which, as we reported in March, does not work for those who do not have easy access to reliable internet.

“But now we’re in the era of mass vaccination,” she says; a time when walk-in clinics are popping up and residents can just show up and get their shots. This, Kelly says, is changing a lot of minds among the “wait-and-sees” – those who wanted to wait for others to get the vaccine before deciding whether they want one.

That wait-and-see mentality was a mainstay in the African-American community just two months ago, when we first reported on Black vaccine hesitancy. But there is power in numbers, and as more Black South Carolinians get vaccinated, says Winthrop University senior Brie-Ann Holley, more are starting to realize that their fears were unfounded. And, she says, more African-Americans are starting to realize that we’re obviously not going to mask-and-distance our way out of this.

“Us trying to force [the virus] out won’t work,” she says. “We need to be in touch with reality. People are not going to inject Black people with a different vaccine or something.”

Yes, that was a real fear that many in the African-American community had expressed, that the vaccine was a hoax and would target Black people.

Holley, like her friend, Kourtney Jefferson, was initially afraid to get vaccinated. They since have received their shot, having come around for a few reasons, Jefferson says. One is the influence of family members who work in healthcare and who urged getting vaccinated; another is, frankly, the desire to travel and see some of the world, which both say won’t happen unless most of us are vaccinated; and, finally, some peer pressure.

“Me and all my friends, we were hesitant at one point,” Jefferson says. “But then we thought, ‘Let’s do it.’ Everybody’s getting it, so why not me?”