Health officials concerned over COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in minority communities

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee Health Department says they are aware of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy within minority communities in the area, but health officials are hoping to change that.

Experts say vaccine hesitancy in communities of color has been around for quite some time. They say it comes from a long history of mistrust of both government and health systems. 

“I would say all of our communities of color are vaccine hesitant,” said Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, UW Health chief diversity officer.

Bidar-Sielaff says vaccine hesitancy has existed since as long as vaccines have been around. She says the lack of trust comes from a history of medical wrongdoing in minority groups.

“We now know about Henrietta Lacks, we all know about the Tuskegee trials, we heard just last year about the hysterectomies performed on immigrant women,” said Bidar-Sielaff.

The CDC says flu vaccination rates in ethnic minority groups are lower than rates in the white population. CDC data show adult flu vaccination coverage for the 2019-2020 season was 38% among Hispanic or Latino persons, 41% among non-Hispanic Black persons and 42% among American Indian or Alaska Native persons.

“There’s lots of historical context and reasoning for that,” said Marlaina Jackson, interim health commissioner for the Milwaukee Health Department.

COVID-19 is known to disproportionately affect Black and brown communities, Jackson says it’s important communities of color get vaccinated.

That reason alone makes a lot of sense for individuals of color to make sure that they are aware of the vaccine and when it’s available,” Jackson added.

Building trust with minority communities is crucial to ending the pandemic. Doctors say herd immunity is reached when 70 to 75 percent of the population gets the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Monday, Dec. 28, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city will ramp up efforts to reach vulnerable communities.

“I think it’s very, very important that we get as many dosages as we can. I think there’s a real racial equity issue there, I want to make sure that people in this community, particularly people who are vulnerable, have access to this,” he said.  

Bidar-Sielaff says it’s important leaders and the health community acknowledge the lack of trust and engage communities of color in discussions surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.

“The more people get the vaccine, the more immunity we have amongst our own communities and we’re really protecting people that we love and care about, so I think for communities of color, that’s a really important conversation,” Bidar-Sielaff said.

On top of educating minority communities, Bidar-Sielaff says having trusted faces within minority communities is crucial to building confidence with the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Trusted people who can talk about getting the vaccine and being really that face of the vaccine and representing, it’s going to be absolutely important,” she added.

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