Las Vegas Dr. Robert Wesley is seeing a troubling trend when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. Too few Black people are getting it, whether because of so-called “vaccine hesitancy” or economic barriers.
"Being an African American physician, I want to do what I can to alleviate hesitancy in the Black community,” Wesley said, noting the same mistrust of the vaccine for various reasons among whites and other groups.
Wesley is doing what he can to get the word out that everyone needs to get vaccinated. He recently spoke about the problem to the Las Vegas and Atlanta chapters of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a nonprofit advocating for Black women and girls.
"Their concern has been making sure that African American people are aware and will do what they can to protect themselves," he said.
In Clark County, 13% of Black people have been vaccinated compared to 21% of whites, according to the Southern Nevada Health District. The vaccination rate among Hispanics is also about 13%.
Wesley said mistrust of the vaccine is partly to blame, but low vaccination rates among Blacks is more attributable to barriers such as a lack of transportation and conflicts with work schedules.
"I find Caucasians as equally hesitant as Black people. Why it's lower, it's just the ease of getting it," he said.
Focusing on one group's mistrust of the vaccine is stigmatizing and implies blame for the spread of coronavirus, he said.
Blacks have been hit hard by the virus because many are frontline, essential employees who stayed on the job through the pandemic and couldn't work from home, Wesley said. Blacks also have high rates of underlying health conditions, like hypertension, obesity, heart disease and diabetes, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month announced $2.5 billion in grants to help public health departments address inequities caused by poverty and a lack of access to health care.
“This investment will be monumental in anchoring equity at the center of our nation’s COVID-19 response — and is a key step forward in bringing resources and focus to health inequities that have for far too long persisted in our country,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said in a statment.
On Tuesday, Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear was at Harry Levy Gardens, a public housing complex for seniors, for a vaccination event.
"I think there is hesitancy for some folk in the Black community to take it,” he said. “There's a history of distrust with our country based off of what happened with the Tuskegee experiments.”
The Tuskegee experiment, which ran from 1932 to 1972 in Alabama, promised Black men free government health care but actually left them with untreated syphilis, leading to the deaths of 128 participants.
North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown also cited vaccine hesitancy as a factor in the Black community.
Part of the solution is getting more vaccination sites in Black communities.
"If you meet people where they are in their communities, they will be more relaxed, and then you can have conversations with them about this vaccine, about the process, about what to expect, but you have to meet them where they are," Goynes-Brown said.