While a coronavirus vaccine may soon become available, many Detroiters say they don’t plan to get vaccinated.
Just over 60 percent of Detroiters surveyed say they are either unlikely or very unlikely to get a government approved coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available, according to a Detroit Metro Area Communities Study through the University of Michigan. Black and Hispanic Detroiters were more likely to say they would not get vaccinated than any other group. Survey data and local experts indicate a correlation between Detroiters’ lack of trust, ongoing racial health disparities, lack of access to reliable information and their s refusal to get vaccinated.
Evan Daugherty, 26, said he doesn’t plan to get vaccinated and would be hesitant to listen to a doctor who encouraged him to do so.
“For one, there’s that cultural disconnect which accounts for a lot in understanding,” Daugherty said. “And two, [doctors] don’t really know how disconnected [they are] and how hard it is to overcome and see if they are actually listening to your needs. What’s best for you or even if they have your best interest, which history hasn’t shown.”
Daugherty, an independent contractor, has aged out of parental health insurance coverage. Even though some Black respondents said they were more likely to consider getting vaccinated if the information came from a health professional, Daugherty said he’s doubtful.
“I’ve never had a Black doctor, I don’t have a doctor now or health insurance, actually,” Daugherty said. “I wouldn’t trust it from a doctor.”
Marijata Daniel-Echols, who was appointed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities this spring, said there are several reasons communities of color are reluctant to trust government and health care systems.
“It’s because they have a narrative of their communities being abused [by systems] in the past,” said Daniel-Echols. “And they have experience with cultural incompetence within our health care systems where they don’t necessarily feel like they’re being listened to or treated with respect, combined with a situation where we’ve had some folks in our country actively undermining the pandemic.”
For some, the rushed coronavirus vaccine, which may become available to health care professionals and essential employees by the end of the year, is a reminder of how Black bodies were used for public health experiments in the past. The two most common examples: Henrietta Lacks, whose DNA was used to create vaccines without her knowledge, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where Black men did not give known consent to the experiments being conducted.
Ongoing racial health disparities that have not been appropriately addressed and have weighed on Black and Brown communities for years may also be a contributing factor.
“Racial health disparities is just another way of saying that disease, or access to care is different between racial groups,” Daniel-Echols said.
That can include things like access to affordable, nutritious food, reliable transportation to healthcare services, or access to unbiased medical care. Daniel-Echols, who is also a program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said socioeconomic factors can lead to health disparities. Even though she’s having more conversations across sectors about social determinants of health to address racial health disparities, she said government and health care systems will have to do more to reach communities of color.
“The messenger matters,” she said.
The city of Detroit pushed an aggressive outreach campaign about the dangers of coronavirus and encouraged residents to participate in free testing and facemask-wearing over the last few months. However, when asked about the vaccine, the city’s health department declined to comment.
“It is far too early to begin discussing the vaccine at this time,” they said in an email to BridgeDetroit.
Researchers began surveying Detroit residents about the coronavirus in March. Each rendition of the survey includes former and new respondents to help researchers better understand residents’ feelings and responses to the pandemic.
Jeff Morenoff, from the University of Michigan, said the data show there is “legitimate distrust” that is highlighting gaps in public health.
“We find in general that people of color and people of lower incomes are more likely to take the pandemic more seriously,” Morenoff said. They “practice social distancing, mask wearing, and even get tested at rates that are as high if not higher than their comparison groups. But yet, when it comes to wanting to take a vaccine, there’s some distrust that’s manifesting.”
Almost 40 percent of the survey respondents said a family member or friend had died from coronavirus. Additionally, 44 percent said they have already been tested for coronavirus. Of those who have not been tested, 84 percent said their health care provider told them to self-quarantine instead.
Lydia Wilden, a doctoral-level research fellow on the DMACS study, said women in Detroit were more likely to say they would turn down a vaccine than men, but that employment, or lack thereof, made no difference.
“If people were employed, unemployed, or out of the labor force, there wasn’t any difference, which, I looked at it to see if you were working in your home or out of your home so you might think you have a greater reason to go get the vaccine,” she said. “And again, we didn’t see significant differences.”
Daniel-Echols said people across the country are questioning whether coronavirus vaccines will be safe. She said other reports have highlighted questions being asked about whether pharmaceutical companies have “skipped important steps” and if residents can “trust what the government is telling me” while in a rush to solve the problem.
Jacob Walker, a Detroit resident, said seeing a vaccine this early makes him uneasy.
“It feels rushed,” Walker said. “We were just, literally months ago, just finding out about the virus, that it’s a real thing, a real pandemic. That was March or April and now suddenly half-a-year later we have a vaccine that usually takes 18 months to develop? I’m not comfortable with that.”
Like Daugherty, Walker said the use of Black bodies in previous medical experiments has left him with uncertainty.
“We were property,” Walker said. “We were something that you could experiment with.”
Walker, 46, said information about COVID-19 has been inconsistent. In a matter of months he’s heard mixed messages about how long the virus lingers from person to person, if it’s OK to eat inside restaurants, leave his groceries in the garage, and whether he should spray Lysol on packages left on his doorstep. Walker said he needs to see transparency in processes and consistent messaging from reliable sources to take a vaccine seriously.
“My life is valuable and I’m not going to rush to do something that could lessen my life, shorten my life,” he said. “I have a lot to look forward to, a lot to do with my community and my people.”