In mid-South Side community meetings, representatives from the University of Chicago Medical Center and Howard Brown Health say that the best advocates for the COVID-19 vaccine are not health care providers themselves but community members who have already gotten their shots.
At the meetings, Dr. Maya Green, the South and West Side Medical Director for Howard Brown, a federally qualified health center, said it is important to note the distinction between Black people not trusting the medical industry and the medical industry being untrustworthy for African Americans.
"The first thing that needs to be done is just to take the gaslight off," she said. "The industry was not equitable and fair historically, and still we have room to go."
Green said acknowledging this to a recent virtual meeting of the Bryn Mawr East Area Council, South Shore block club, led to immediate relief.
"The nuance is in the language, right?" she said. "It's not that we as African Americans just didn't trust the medical industry. The reality is the medical industry had a lack of trustworthiness towards people of African descent and other people of color."
Brenda Battle, vice president of the University of Chicago's Urban Health Initiative, said the university is hearing a lot of hesitancy about whether the vaccine will work for Black people, period, and also whether it will work for African Americans because of preexisting health disparities and chronic conditions.
Between having experts around to answer questions at virtual Community Grand Rounds meetings (one last week had more than 200 participants), people who have already been vaccinated are also speaking up, talking about their first and second shots and why they got them to begin with.
"The distrust is not often unfounded mistrust in some of these things," she said. "We want to give people the opportunity to talk through that mistrust and also to pull together to be informed enough to recognize the value of taking the vaccine in promoting their own safety and their families' safety."
Green said the best time to have had conversations about vaccine efficacy and safety would have been when the vaccines were still a hypothetical. The second-best time, she said, is now, when they are here.
"We have to be careful that we're sitting at the feet of the community and learning from them instead of the notion that we're going to do some 'vaccine education' or some 'vaccine readiness' for this person," she said. "We cannot already decide that this person should or will get the vaccine."
Concerns — that Hank Aaron died from the COVID-19 vaccine, that it was developed too fast, that it is part of a malevolent conspiracy or that the vaccines and health care in general were not created for African Americans — abound.
"Historically, when other industries weren't equitable, fair or just towards us, we relied on ourselves," Green said. "It makes sense that we're going to rely on our tribe for information. That's why it's important that we sit and listen to what the tribe is saying instead of coming in and thinking, 'I'm going to tell you how to do this.'"
Battle said a lack of trust in government had also manifested in outreach as well as a concern that people of color were not involved in vaccine trials.
"Between the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine, in terms of the persons enrolled in the trials, between 35-40% were people of color in those trials," she said. The U. of C. was a testing site for the Moderna vaccine and enrolled more than 100 more people of color to ensure safety before it was authorized under emergency use for the adult public.
Green added that people have told her, during group discussions or in conversations with patients at her Howard Brown practice, that they are going to wait for more people to get their shots before getting vaccinated themselves.
In that case, she recommends vitamin D — Rush University has suggested it may be linked with preventing severe COVID-19 symptoms, and Green said that African American people are often deficient in it. And when they are ready to get the vaccine, she tells them how to get back in touch with Howard Brown.
"I encourage the conversations," she said. "What I'd like to see us do is to stop discouraging the conversations about why (people don't want to take the vaccine), because the person is actually telling you what their hesitancy or fears are, and to try to shut it down has never worked."
She said providers should not try to correct attendees but rather answer questions presented by the group. After she did so, one person in the block club spoke up, said she had been vaccinated and took over the meeting.
"That's way more believable than me presenting from data that was handed down from the CDC, because now getting the vaccine is real," Green said. "That person sharing their experience is only there because they're part of the tribe, and they're only sharing it because they want the tribe to do well. And the tribe trusts that person way more than they would learn to trust me in 15 minutes."
Battle, for her part, said going public with taking the vaccine in her own social network has directly led to some of her contacts getting vaccinated.
"I'm a trusted messenger," she said, "and having trusted messengers say that the vaccine is safe, I've taken it, and I'm good and hopefully you will take it has had such tremendous impact in terms of others taking the vaccine."
"We're all working together with community members to help our communities be safe through COVID and get what they need to get to wellness and safety. That's the message. If we don't focus on that positive access of what getting the vaccine will do to improve health in our community, we're going to keep promoting and escalating the hesitancy, and it's too dire to do that."
As of Jan. 17-23, COVID-19 percent-positivities are below 5%, the city's target positivity, in all four mid-South Side lakefront ZIP codes:
- In 60653, covering North Kenwood and Bronzeville, there were 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19, compared to 42 from Jan. 10-16, and no deaths, down from one the week before. There was a 3.9% positivity rate out of 1,038 tests performed, up from 3.3% from the week before. The number of tests performed declined 19%.
- In 60615, covering northern Hyde Park, southern Kenwood and northern Washington Park, there were 34 confirmed cases, down from 58 the week before, and no deaths, the same as the week before. There was a 1.6% positivity rate out of 2,182 tests, down from 2.7% the week before. The number of tests performed rose 2%.
- In 60637, covering southern Hyde Park, southern Washington Park and Woodlawn, there were 66 confirmed cases, down from 83 the week before, and one death, down from two the week before. There was a 1.6% positivity rate out of 4,028 tests, down from 2.1% the week before. The number of tests performed did not meaningfully change.
- In 60649, South Shore, there were 56 confirmed cases, down from 80 the week before, and two deaths, up from one the week before. There was a 4.7% positivity out of 1,197 tests, down from 6.2% the week before. The number of tests performed dropped 7%.
The city’s figures are accurate as of Friday, Jan. 29, recorded at chi.gov/coviddash and change as additional past data comes in.
From Jan 16-22, the University of Chicago reported seven positive coronavirus case out of 4,216 tests; the week before, the school identified 12 positive cases out of 5,021 tests. All test results are reported to the city.
Since Sept. 18, there have been 676 total coronavirus cases at the U. of C.
As of Jan. 29, there are 49 patients with COVID-19 at the UCMC. On Jan 25, there were 39 patients, on Jan 15, there were 56, and on Dec. 30, there were 91, and on Dec. 2, there were 108. At the height of the first surge, in April, there were 140.
Testing is available in Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn at:
- Howard Brown Health, 1525 E. 55th St., www.howardbrown.org/service/covid-19-services, 773-388-1600
- Friend Health Cottage Grove, 800 E. 55th St., and Friend Health Woodlawn, 1522 E. 63rd., www.friendfhc.org/covid.html, 773-702-0660 (appointments recommended).
- The University of Chicago Medical Center, www.uchicagomedicine.org/covid-testing, 773-702-2800 (appointments required, and patients must be symptomatic)
- Komed Holman Health Center, 4259 S. Berkeley Ave., www.nearnorthhealth.org/covid-19, 773-268-7600.
Chicago is in Phase 1b of vaccine distribution People working frontline essential jobs and those aged 65 and older — alongside those in Phase 1a: health care workers, homeless people and those in nursing homes — are eligible for the vaccine. The city's website for vaccine information is www.chicago.gov/covidvax.
Patient registration for the COVID-19 vaccine at the UCMC is not available at this time; vaccines are being offered to eligible patients through a lottery, with patients being notified when it is their turn to schedule an appointment.
Howard Brown Health is offering the COVID-19 vaccine to essential frontline workers and those aged 65 and older, with sign-up online at www.howardbrown.org/covid-19/vaccine.
The Cook County government is offering sign-up for vaccines at vaccine.cookcountyil.gov.