When the Rev. Dr. Ricky Woods, pastor of First Baptist Church-West in Charlotte, hears congregants and other members of the African American community express hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine, he tells them this: Get informed. Then get vaccinated.

Taking the vaccine, he tells people, is the best way to stay healthy, keep family members and others around them safe, and protect communities.

“The only way we’re going to get back to being able to worship, to get the economy moving again and to some level of normalcy, is for us to get a handle on this pandemic,” Woods said. “And we’re going to have to do that together. That’s not something that one group can do and another group can completely ignore.”

Delivering this message of the importance of getting vaccinated – particularly to members of Charlotte’s Black community – is why Novant Health is partnering with the faith community, schools, outreach organizations and others like the Chambers McCain Foundation, which is focused, among other things, on health and wellbeing and creating a path to healing Black communities physically and economically. Chambers McCain Foundation chairman Robert Keene echoed Novant Health’s commitment to getting the Black community vaccinated saying “it is our strong desire to give our community the information it needs to overcome vaccination hesitancy based on historical mistreatment.”

Throughout the vaccine rollout, Novant Health has been sponsoring clinics in Charlotte and Winston-Salem specifically for church members and neighboring communities.

Hesitancy rooted in history

This strategy is intentional. Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than the general population as a whole. But after hundreds of years of institutional racism at the hands of government and healthcare, they are also more likely to be distrustful of the vaccine that could help their communities the most. Here are a few reasons why:

• The incident most often cited as the top source of distrust is the Tuskegee experiment. From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government withheld treatment from a group of Black sharecroppers in Alabama to study the progression of syphilis. They were never informed of their diagnosis and were told instead they were getting free healthcare.

• Henrietta Lacks is the Black woman who came to posthumous prominence when author Rebecca Skloot wrote about her in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Lacks was treated at what was then called The Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer. The cells taken in her biopsy replicated easily and soon scientists far and wide used cells reproduced from Lacks’ cancer to test treatments. Lacks never gave consent, and she and her family never received compensation. But her cells have led to medical breakthroughs that include the polio vaccine, cancer and AIDS treatments.  

• North Carolina has a shameful history of forced sterilization of residents, who were mostly  poor and Black.

Extraordinary protection

There might be other reasons for anxiety. Perhaps there’s concern about the expected side effects, including low-grade fever, headache and pain or swelling in the arm where you got the shot. Maybe there’s skepticism about the vaccine development process, despite it happening independently of politics.

While the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines vary slightly in efficacy, here’s the bottom line: All the vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 hospitalization or worse, said David Priest, MD, Novant Health senior vice president and chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

Regardless of which vaccine you receive, you will be better protected than if you did not receive a vaccine,” Priest said. “The most important thing right now is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

A return to normal

Although it is critical for everyone to continue our practices of masking, social distancing and hand-washing, these steps are not enough. The vaccine is a crucial part of getting us beyond this pandemic and getting our community back to normal. Faith community leaders are especially vital in conveying this message, said Dr. Jerome Williams Jr., Novant Health senior vice president of consumer engagement.

“We’ve been partners with our faith community pre-COVID, during COVID and post-COVID,” said Williams. “So we understand that in order to really understand our communities, you have to work with the leaders of our communities.”

As Novant Health continues working with faith leaders and other trusted partners, the goal is to inform and promote correct information – and reduce concern over the COVID-19 vaccine.

 “It’s important to get the vaccine, not only to prevent the transmission of the disease,” said Williams, “but to heal our communities.”

All Novant Health vaccination sites are now accepting walk-ins – as supply allows. We do encourage people to make an appointment, but if someone has an unexpected free hour at work or finds themselves in the area, we invite them to pop-in and get their vaccine. Click here for a list of locations.

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