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National

Coalition Urges Black Communities To Embrace A COVID-19 Vaccine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A public health announcement, which you can see online, describes itself as a love letter to Black America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dear Black America, we love you. We affirm that Black Lives Matter.

INSKEEP: On the screen, you see images of Black doctors and nurses and other medical workers. The YouTube video comes from the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, doctors and nurses, leaders of academic institutions. Dr. Reed Tuckson is the former health commissioner of Washington, D.C.

REED TUCKSON: One of the things that we have noticed about the response to this COVID pandemic has been the level of mistrust and misinformation that has plagued the response to this virus. As a result of that distrust and misinformation, there is a reluctance on the part of many Americans, but particularly Americans of color, to follow the guidance that has been offered and, also, a very great reluctance to be willing to participate in the clinical trials for the vaccine and for accepting a vaccine once safe and proven.

So what we are trying to do with this effort is to speak directly to this fundamental issue of distrust and misinformation that results in, unfortunately, premature death and preventable misery and suffering.

INSKEEP: Let's think that through because, as you know very well, distrust of experts is a universal issue today - distrust of science, distrust of doctors and particularly distrust of vaccines. Every kind of person may exhibit that behavior. But what particularly seems to be happening in communities of color?

TUCKSON: One of the things that I had the chance to do in my career was to be the commissioner of public health in the District of Columbia during the height of the HIV epidemic. And there we found that it was extremely difficult to break through the legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis experience and other significant insults that made it very difficult to be able to push our message through around the appropriate things to do. It is amazing to me now that in 2020, so many years later, the same issues are rearing their head.

Certainly, this is a national issue, but in the African American community, it is a particularly exacerbated issue because of things like the Tuskegee experience and combined with efforts that have resulted in the need for thousands and thousands of people of color to walk into their city's streets and declare that their lives matter. When you have that level of anxiety, that causes a significant problem in health care.

INSKEEP: When you're talking about people saying Black Lives Matter, of course, that's a reference to policing. When you say the Tuskegee experience, will you describe that for people for whom maybe that's just a name?

TUCKSON: Back in the 1930s, there was a trial that evaluated syphilis in human beings and then decide not to treat them, but just follow along and see what the course of the events would occur. Even though there was a treatment, these victims were unable to access that. And there simply was a watching as these people became ill, sickened and died. This legacy is so outrageous that it has remained prominent, unfortunately, even today.

And that is the kind of symbolic issue, combined with other elements in the society, that have caused too many people of color to be distrustful of the vaccine process, the clinical trials process. And as a result, their health will suffer, and we will pay the consequences.

INSKEEP: I noticed in watching this public service announcement, this love letter to Black America, it is one Black face after another. It is African Americans in scrubs - doctors, nurses, other medical professionals.

TUCKSON: That is true. And I think that the reason is, is that I think too few people in the Black community realize, first of all, that - how many African Americans are in leadership positions, who are in positions of authority and power to be able to make sure that something like Tuskegee could never happen again, so that the head of the National Heart and Lung and Blood Institute (ph) at the NIH is an African American man. One of the people that is doing the most important basic science about the vaccine in Tony Fauci's lab is an African American woman.

And there are also Black physicians who are involved very intimately in the review process at the FDA prior to their making a final decision on safety and efficacy. So we are trying to absolutely let our community understand that we are inside of the tent watching everything very carefully, protecting their interests and assuring them that only the best science is being applied to the decisions that will affect their life.

INSKEEP: I wonder if it's helpful to a doctor or a nurse just to be alive to the history, just to know the history that might be in the head of the other person, the patient that they bring into that room.

TUCKSON: I was well trained as a physician, and one of the things that was a hallmark of my training was to learn to listen to the patient and connect with the patient, to their history, their culture, their ideas, their values, their spirituality - all of the elements that make them a unique and vital human being. And so it is imperative that we know this history, that all health professionals understand what your patient is bringing to the clinical arena. Health professionals have to understand how and why people make decisions if we're going to help people to make the most appropriate decisions for them.

INSKEEP: Dr. Reed Tuckson, thanks so much.

TUCKSON: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: He's one of the organizers of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the original audio for this story, the guest said that the purpose of the Tuskegee syphilis study was to intentionally inject African American men with syphilis. There is no evidence of this. Historical records indicate that the stated purpose of the study was to observe and treat African American men who had already contracted the disease, but over the course of the study, readily available treatment was actually withheld from participants.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 26, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In the original audio for this story, the guest said that the purpose of the Tuskegee syphilis study was to intentionally inject African American men with syphilis. There is no evidence of this. Historical records indicate that the stated purpose of the study was to observe and treat African American men who had already contracted the disease, but over the course of the study, readily available treatment was actually withheld from participants.