Why seeing a Black nurse get a COVID vaccine may counter fears in the Black community

The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were given in the U.S. on Monday, marking a major milestone in a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 Americans. Based on recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the first individuals to receive the vaccine will be health care workers and nursing home residents, two groups that have been hit hard by COVID-19.

But in New York, the first person to give the vaccine, and receive it, have even more meaning: Both were Black women. Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, was the first person to receive the vaccine, telling reporters in attendance that she felt “hopeful.” Dr. Michelle Chester, director of Employee Health Services at Northwell Health, administered the vaccine to Lindsay.

Sandra Lindsay
Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on Monday. (Mark Lennihan/Reuters)

Afterward, Lindsay thanked her fellow frontline workers and spoke plainly about the importance of being one of the first to get the vaccine in the U.S., where vaccine hesitancy among communities of color remains high. “I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe,” Lindsay said. “We’re in a pandemic and so we all need to do [our] part to put an end to the pandemic, and to not give up so soon.”

For Dr. Uché Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity and a Yahoo Life medical contributor, witnessing the image of two Black women at the forefront was moving. “I felt emotional,” Blackstock tells Yahoo Life. “It was a powerful image.” Blackstock — who started an organization dedicated to addressing inequality in health care — says there is more than one reason why the image is worthy of the attention it received.

First, there’s the fact that Black people are nearly three times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 than white people and two times more likely to die, which studies have found is mostly due to jobs and housing. Then there’s the history of unethical medical experiments done on Black people, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, which have fostered a decades-long mistrust of doctors. And lastly, there is the existing medical racism that persists today, resulting in major health disparities such as Black women being three times more likely to die from childbirth than white women.

Blackstock says for hese reasons and more, the photo of two Black women at the forefront of one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in U.S. history is vitally important. “There were so many layers in that imagery,” says Blackstock. “I’m hoping that it helps engender some trust in the process that, here you have a Black woman nurse taking the vaccine and almost putting herself out there as an example for others.”

To be sure, Blackstock says that one picture isn’t enough to sufficiently address vaccine reluctance in the Black community — a problem that is getting worse. In an October survey conducted by Stat news website and the Harris Poll, just 43 percent of Black Americans said they would “pursue a vaccine as soon as it is available,” a more than 20 percent decrease from a similar poll in August.

Given the racism that has long permeated the medical world, distrust of vaccines among the Black community is — as many have written — valid. Blackstock says one of the best ways to address it is exactly what was done on Monday: put Black health care workers, seen as “trusted messengers,” in prominent roles. “We have these lived experiences as Black people in this country, but we also work in health care environments,” she says. “We have different perspectives about the vaccine, and we are able to digest the information in a different way than the public. And so, I got a warm feeling seeing a Black health care worker caring for her patient.”

While the image of a Black health care worker may be vital, she worries that not enough has been done to spread awareness about the safety of the vaccine and its potential positive impact. “I have not really seen an extensive public health campaign about the vaccine and addressing the concerns that people have,” says Blackstock. “I think that’s a problem.”

She and other Black colleagues have been expressing concern in public and private about the repercussions that the lack of messaging could have on their community. “I think we’re going to have challenges with vaccine uptake,” says Blackstock. “We’re really very concerned about the low rates of vaccine confidence in Black communities. I fear that Black Americans will be left behind once again.”

Still, she says the image of Lindsay and Chester on Monday brings some optimism, as does the impending arrival of a new administration. “I understand that health inequity — and even just the science of the pandemic — is a priority for the incoming administration,” says Blackstock. “And so I hope to see additional productive strategies to address vaccine hesitancy as well.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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