March 2021
Vaccine Hesitancy and The Legacy of Racism
Dillard Elmore, DO, CMD, MBA

As the residuals of the holiday COVID-19 surge begin to wear off we should take a moment to reflect. Along with the decline in new cases, the United States has ample personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines ready to go into arms, and an expanding understanding of the SARS-Cov2. Based on these facts it would seem there is cause to celebrate. In reality, this is far from the truth. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced our nation to address the elephant in the room. That elephant is the persistent health disparities between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. These health disparities and the legacy of racism have led to a vicious cycle of distrust and poorer outcomes for essential workers most at risk of contracting COVID-19. Essential workers have been on the front lines in our supermarkets, hospitals, and nursing homes. Many essential workers are African American, and their distrust is manifested in vaccine hesitancy.

There are several historic examples of racism in healthcare. The Tuskegee syphilis study unethically observed black men with syphilis, never treating them. These men did not know or consent to take part in the study. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman with cervical cancer. Her cells were harvested for research without her consent and are still being used today as the HeLA cell line. These examples are from prior decades and the victims were uneducated and uninformed. Despite there being more educated black Americans today, health disparities still exist. Dr. Susan Moore recorded a video expressing concern over her treatment in the hospital while suffering from COVID-19. She informed her physician that she was short of breath and in pain. Her physician told her that she was not short of breath and that he did not feel comfortable giving her more pain medicine. Dr. Moore later died from COVID-19. Doctor Shanice Wallace was the chief resident in her pediatric residency. She died from complications during pregnancy. Her death underscores CDC data from 2007-2016 showing that black women were 3.2 times more likely to have pregnancy-related death than white women. In fact, college-educated black women are 5.2 times more likely than their white counterparts to have pregnancy-related mortality.

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