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Leaders in Knoxville's Black Communities Battle Vaccine Hesitance

Cynthia Finch

In Knoxville’s Black community, Cynthia Finch might qualify as the biggest booster for the shot that protects against COVID-19. Yet even she has struggled to convince her own siblings to get vaccinated. 

It helped that she was willing to take the plunge first, by joining the AstraZeneca vaccine trial and finishing her vaccinations in January. The pharmaceutical company was struggling to find enough Black participants to draw conclusions about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

“We do know African Americans are hesitant about taking the vaccine,” Finch said. “We realize there has to be a trusted voice to provide this information to people that look like them. It’s all right for white folks and everybody else to tell black folks about it, but they’re not gonna listen…. The people that need to be talking to black folks are black leaders, black nurses, black doctors.”

In January, Finch joined forces with Black health workers and community leaders to create a working group that is promoting the vaccine in the Black community. The group also includes an East Tennessee council of 15 Black sororities and fraternities, a black nursing sorority, and the Knoxville branch of the NAACP. 

The effort is urgent because COVID-19 has hurt people of color the most. Black Americans are almost three times as likely to die of the disease and almost four times as likely to be hospitalized with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s partly because they often lack access to adequate health insurance and health care, says Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie. That makes them more prone to chronic health problems, like diabetes and heart disease, that complicate coronavirus cases. 

And the pandemic has hit them harder financially. According to an October report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost half of Black parents report a major problem affording basic needs like housing, utilities and food. 

Lisa Faulkner is a registered nurse and vice president of the local Chi Eta Phi sorority of Black nurses. “We’ve had so many people even in our community that (have) died from COVID. In fact my ex-mother-in-law and her son-in-law, they both lived in the house together and they both died from COVID,” she said. “Their funeral service was at the same time.”

Faulkner knows another family that lost siblings days apart. Still, many in the Black community hesitate to take the vaccine. 

December national surveys published by the Pew Research Center and the Journal of the American Medical Association found just 38 to 42 percent of Black respondents likely to get the COVID vaccine, compared to 59 to 61 percent of whites.

That’s partly because of America’s dark history of medical experimentation on slaves and then later poor Blacks. One example is Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient who died in 1951. Samples of her cells, which proved basically immortal in the lab, were used for research without her knowledge. They have been instrumental in testing medicines, developing the polio vaccine and most recently, studying COVID-19. 

But more recently, the most infamous example of racist medical research was the Tuskegee experiment, which allowed Black men to suffer or die from syphilis for decades. While medical rules and laws have been tightened since the press exposed the Tuskegee study in 1972, many African Americans still distrust the medical establishment. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that two-thirds of Black adults think the federal government would be taking stronger action to fight the pandemic if more white than Black people were getting sick and dying from COVID-19.

Vivian Shipe, an advocate for the homeless and mentally ill, said, “In the community, we’re hearing from people: ‘I’m not getting that. Y’all not gonna make me your guinea pigs like they did in the past.’” Her Knoxville initiative I AM The Voice of the Voiceless is a partner in the working group. “You have to get that trust, you gotta break that barrier down.” 

Faulkner and most of her 25 sorority sisters received COVID-19 shots last week. They have volunteered to administer shots at future clinics. She says many people tell her they think the vaccine was rushed. However, often they don’t understand how vaccines actually work.

“It’s been so politicized that I think that hindered people, thinking that: Is this all about money, or is this really true?” Faulkner said. “A lot of people have a lot of questions, and they don’t know where to get their answers from. They don’t know who to believe. And I think our sorority will play a big part of that is being out there giving out correct information.”

The 25 local Chi Eta Phi members have also volunteered to administer shots at future clinics, Faulkner said. Vaccines against COVID-19 are still in short supply, with thousands of people in Knoxville being turned away from overwhelmed vaccine clinics. The working group is compiling a list of fragile Black seniors willing to snap up open vaccination slots or doses remaining when a clinic ends. 

“What we’re saying is: Hey, at the end of the day, if you’ve got shots left over, here’s a list -- call these people,” Shipe said. “Get that medicine in somebody’s arm.”

Finch suggested holding vaccine clinics at Black churches. The vaccine working group itself emerged from an initiative of Black faith leaders which Finch and McKenzie organized last March. Pastors and parish nurses from as many as 180 Black churches meet weekly online with public health experts about COVID, said Finch. Finch notes that this marks the first time many in the Black community have had this kind of direct access to key decision-makers. 

They also need more direct access to the vaccine, said McKenzie. She represents East Knoxville, where most of the city’s Black population lives. She says transportation is a barrier for many people there, even if they want the vaccine. 

“If I have to catch a bus and go all the way across town and stand in line to get the vaccine, and then I have to wait to see if I have a reaction -- but yet then I start feeling bad, and I have to stand and wait for the bus to take me home -- a lot of people are just not going to go through all of those steps, especially when there is already an initial fear of taking it to begin with,” McKenzie said.

Boots on the ground and word of mouth from trusted friends is key, Finch said. She has even asked seniors who get the shot to each call 20 friends and tell them about the experience.

The new clinician’s work group will use a “train the trainer” model to educate pastors, parish nurses, older residents and members of Greek organizations who can then share what they know with their members and families, Finch said. She also plans a public education push modeled on election campaigns, with yard signs, door hangers, flyers at grocery stores, videos shared during online church services, and a web site featuring local Black leaders rolling up their sleeves. 

“President Biden has these lofty 100-day goals to have 100 million people vaccinated,” Finch noted. “Well, we can help them, if they just send us the vaccine.”

Shipe used social media to tell everyone about her COVID vaccination. A week later, her Facebook followers asked how she was doing. “So I gave a report the other day: Feeling good, no side effects,” Shipe said. “Because it’s a trust factor when you’re dealing with the African American community.”

To learn more about COVID vaccination or get on a list of seniors interested in receiving the vaccine, contact Cythia Finch at (865) 254-4793.