“I want to make something very, very clear; We’re not pushing people to get vaccinated,” says Serena Muhammad, COVID-19 Regional Response Team managing director.
At first, her statement seems at odds with her mission as part of a consortium of local agencies working with Washington University health officials to encourage vaccinations among black people.
The university was awarded $1.9 million in federal grants to monitor and respond to common myths about vaccines and inform black residents about clinical trials.
So, if Muhammad is “not pushing people to get vaccinated,” doesn’t that mean she’s veering from the university’s desired outcome?
Not at all, Muhammad responded. The proper way of communicating, informing and interacting with minority and marginalized individuals will not only increase minority vaccination participation but will also address healthcare disparities post COVID-19.
“COVID has given us the opportunity to fix things that have been broken for a very long time,” Muhammad said.
“Our desired outcome is that we improve our public health infrastructure so that when the next public health crisis pops up, we’re better prepared to respond. We can’t go back to ‘normal’ or the way things were before the pandemic.”
According to a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, some west St. Louis County ZIP code areas, which are predominantly white, have vaccination rates more than double those in Black-majority areas of north St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The disparaging numbers may be a result of centuries of racist health policies and clinical experiments targeted at vulnerable communities of color. A recent report from UnidosUS, NAACP and COVID Collaborative revealed that just 14 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Latino Americans say they have trust in the safety of a new COVID-19 vaccine.
The lack of trust cannot be underestimated, Muhammad emphasized.
“Mistrust is based on real life experiences. People talk a lot about the Tuskegee experiment, but the average person can tell you something that happened to them personally in dealing with health care. They say ‘we’ve been suffering for years and there’s been no public outcry. So, why all this urgency all of a sudden?,’” she said.
“For many black people it feels transactional, as if people only want them to get their stuff together so (the country) can get back to business as usual. People won’t respond to that approach.”
The COVID-19 Regional Response Team is a network of social service organizations that came together after the COVID-19 outbreak. Its mission is to coordinate a social service response to the pandemic.
Muhammad said Matthew Kreuter, a public health professor leading Washington University’s research effort, reached out to her for ideas on how to conduct outreach in marginalized communities.
“One of the things we made very clear is that we will not tell people to take the vaccine,” Muhammad explained.
“Our goal is related to an informed choice. It’s important that there’s equitable access to information. You must respect people’s power and autonomy to make the best decisions for them and their families. We want to make sure people have accurate information and resources to support their decisions.”
Muhammad’s approach has been validated by national and local research. In March, the Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) released its study on “Attitudes and Perceptions of COVID-19 Vaccines.”
It examined how “historic, systemic, community, and personal experiences” influenced the views of Black and Hispanic adults and how those experiences may impact perceptions of the pandemic and vaccines.
Many surveyed said “misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines need to be addressed before they would feel comfortable receiving a dose.” MFH suggested that healthcare practitioners who simply remind people “that getting vaccinated is their choice,” is one way to address those concerns.
“The myths are abundant, Muhammad added.
“With most people, if they hear something from someone they trust, they’re willing to listen. No matter what science tells you, if you don’t trust it, you’re not going to get the results you want. It’s not just about expertise, it’s about trusted, authentic relationships with the community.”
Muhammad said that her network of organizations already works in marginalized Black, Latino, immigrant, and refugee communities. Because they’ve already built trust in these communities, the consortium will ultimately help Washington University achieve its desired goal of reaching and influencing people who have not been vaccinated yet:
“We don’t want to lump everyone in the same category. Not every Black person is vaccine hesitant,” Muhammad said. “There are Black people who want to take it and they should have access to it.
“Getting people sound information is the best way to impact sound decision-making.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.