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Efforts Underway To Promote, Encourage Vaccinations Among Black, Rural Floridians

A healthcare worker holds a tray with COVID-19 vaccines on it.
Wilfredo Lee
AP Photo
Syringes containing the COVID-19 vaccine are shown, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, Fla. Ninety residents and 80 staff members received their second shot of the vaccine Wednesday and 50 new staff members received their first round of the vaccine.

Black faith-leaders are trying to combat vaccine hesitancy. Some people of color and those living in rural areas are more hesitant to take the vaccine due to safety concerns and misinformation.

Tallahassee resident Doris Ballard-Ferguson says the healthcare system has broken her trust many times.

"I'm 79. I grew up in Arkansas. They had segregated hospitals. Black people, when they [were] in the hospital, you had to go to the basement," Ballard-Ferguson says.

Ballard Ferguson is retired and has a Ph.D. in nursing. She doesn't trust the Pfizer vaccine but says she will take the Moderna one.

"And I'm taking it because it was a Black female who was the lead scientist," Ballard-Ferguson says.

Ballard-Ferguson isn't the only one who's hesitant when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. In a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35% of Black adults said they will probably or definitely not get the COVID-19 vaccine. Ashley Kirzinger works for the foundation.

"Black adults are really worried about possible side effects. And that they think that the vaccine is too new. And so, they really want to wait and see how it works for other people. About half of Black adults say they would prefer to be in that wait and see group, and so what that is telling us is that there is not a lot of information about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine that's making it to Black populations," Kirzinger says.

Kirzinger says it's not just Black Americans who are hesitant about vaccines. She sees similar feelings in people living in rural areas, but for different reasons.

"So, four in 10 rural residents say that they are not worried that they or a family member will get sick from COVID-19. That's compared to 29% of the population overall. In addition, half of those living in rural America think that the severity of the virus has been exaggerated in the news. And so those are the reasons that that group is choosing not to get vaccinated," Kirzinger says.

Tallahassee Pastor R.B. Holmes is trying to encourage his congregation to take the vaccine. He's joining other faith-leaders in a statewide effort to reassure people that the vaccines are safe. But he's also fighting against history.

"Well, historically, African Americans have been misused by the medical profession. People still have a strong, sad memory of the Tuskegee experiment," Holmes says.

The Tuskegee experiment was an infamous study of the effects of syphilis in the 1930s. About 600 Black men in rural Alabama were recruited to take part in the study. They were given placebos and were told they were receiving medical care when they were not. Some participants died, and the study has become a prime example of the historical disparities in healthcare when it comes to Black people.

Holmes says he will lead by example and take the vaccine. Clearwater resident Clare Peacock already has. She says a sore arm is the only side-effect she experienced.

"But I could sleep on that side, and it was not a problem at all. So I was very pleased with that. I go back in exactly three weeks," Peacock says.

Peacock says the emotional relief of getting the vaccine made the sore arm worth it.

"I was almost crying there, you know, oh my gosh, I can actually do things again," Peacock says.

Dr. Perry Brown is an epidemiologist who teaches public health at Florida A & M University. He says one of the best ways to combat vaccine hesitancy is to hear from people who have already received the shots. And those who are worried about it, Brown says, should ask questions.

"What kind of side effects did they experience? And then, I would ask of those people who have been vaccinated to become the ambassadors to their cohorts, to their friends to their neighbors, to their relatives, Here's what my experience has been," Brown says.

Brown says he has not yet gotten a vaccine but is signed up to do so.