MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - When it comes to COVID-19 not everyone is onboard with the vaccine, concerning medical experts. Some people are skeptical and they have their reasons, especially African Americans. The public health system has failed them in the past and with limited access to health care in the first place, some wonder why all the fuss to take a vaccine created at warp speed.
As hundreds of Alabamians move through vaccine clinics sets up across the state, health officials are still worried about those who won’t take advantage of the available supply. Many African Americans living in Alabama are saying they don’t want the shot.
Alabama’s history is playing a role in why some African Americans are not eager to get vaccinated even if they know it could save their lives and the people they love.
“I don’t trust it,” said Lucenia Dunn.
You won’t find Dunn lining up to get a COVID-19 vaccine. This Tuskegee native and one-time mayor feels the process was rushed.
“Four hundred thousand-plus people dead. Can you imagine? So it leaves me in a situation to say I’d better be cautious,” she said.
She’s cautious for a reason. Her hometown is also home to the infamous syphilis study - a government project that recruited hundreds of poor Black men from Macon County in 1932 to study syphilis in the body. However, it turned out to be a cruel experiment. Medical workers withheld treatment from the men, killing dozens and infecting wives and children.
“That theme has gone throughout history in terms of the medical profession, we don’t feel pain, we’re closing to the animal world than any other race. All those misconceptions about who we are as a people passed that down from generation to the next then what you have is distrust,” said Dunn.
Distrust that dates back to slavery in the late 1840s. J. Marion Sims, an Alabama doctor who had an office in Montgomery, was known as the “father of gynecology.” He operated on enslaved women without their consent and without anesthesia.
Fear among African Americans makes sense to Michelle Browder, a Montgomery artist and activist working on a memorial to preserve the memory of Sims’ victims.
“I think it has pretty much crippled a lot of us mentally to think this government would be fair and transparent in the way it administers health care, so I think there is a strong caution, even with myself if I can be completely honest. I don’t really feel a sense of urgency of right now right now,” said Browder.
But health care experts worry our history, misinformation and ignoring the urgency to slow the coronavirus will keep those who need the COVID-19 vaccine the most from getting tested or treated: African Americans. According to state health officials, 55% of white Alabamians are being vaccinated compared to 11% of African Americans.
Dr. Mary McIntyre with the state health department says their job is to help separate facts from fiction.
“Because there is a reason for the mistrust, we must recognize that, but we also must explain what we’re doing in order to address the things that have occurred in the past by making sure we’re paying attention to the science and providing accurate information as soon as we know it,” said McIntyre.
Dunn is working to get as much information on the vaccine as she can. She spearheaded the Tuskegee Macon County Community Foundation, a coalition that provides coronavirus resources for the community, like places to get tested and even vaccinated.
“It’s not that I’ll never take the shot, but I want to see what the deal is. As my little niece use to say, I want to wait and see what the deal is going to be,” said Dunn.
The state health department is focusing on rural areas by making sure there are vaccinators in every county so residents won’t have to travel long distances to get the vaccine or to receive information. If you would like more information on the Tuskegee Macon County Community Foundation, check out their website.
The health department is also turning to the faith-based community for help.
“When I walked in today, I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m so glad to be back in this church,’” said Claudia Hughes.
It’s been a tough year for Hughes. She lost her husband in June after a stroke. COVID-19 has kept her from family and friends, and for the first time since COVID-19 hit she’s back in the place that she loves: her church.
She wants things to get back to normal, so she did something that frightened her. She got the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It took me a long time to make up in my mind because I was truly afraid. I’m not going to say that I wasn’t,” said Hughes.
Her great uncle was one of more than 600 men victimized by the infamous syphilis study in Tuskegee where the government experimented on hundreds of poor Black men in Macon County to learn its effects of syphilis on the human body.
“I was told that they had the vaccine and wouldn’t give it to them, so I was leery about taking the vaccine at this time,” said Hughes.
“We can’t ignore the past. People want an acknowledgment, which is extremely important that we do,” said McIntyre.
McIntyre says that the stigma of the study and a lack of trust in modern-day science are creating a hesitancy among those who need the vaccine the most in Alabama: African Americans, especially those living in rural areas.
“While we represent 19% of the cases, we represent 40% of the deaths from COVID-19,” said McIntyre.
These are concerning statistics for health experts. That’s why the state health department is calling on churches in Black communities to help dispel myths and spread the truth among populations at the highest risk.
Freewill Missionary Baptist Church in Montgomery was one of the first churches to serve as a coronavirus testing site.
“I also believe that the more we do our part at trying to get as much accurate information out there, we are beginning to see a number, even of our older members, shift their mindset of being absolutely adamant ‘no, I’m not going to take the vaccine’ to coming around and realizing the vaccine is something that could literally save their life.,” said church pastor Quentin Byrd.
Freewill Baptist Church pastor emeritus Ed Nettles even rolled up his sleeve to get the vaccine.
“God has given these scientists the wisdom and knowledge to create this vaccine for us. People are praying God brings us this brings us that, well God has already given it to us,” said Nettles.
“I’m glad now that I did take it.”
Hughes has no regrets. She’s counting on the vaccine to keep her safe from COVID-19 and her faith. It will all mean getting back to normal soon.