The new COVID-era motto of The Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring Black Cincinnatians have equal access to health care, appears on its homepage in bold, all-caps font: WE MUST SAVE US.
The pandemic’s odds are already stacked against Black Cincinnatians, Health Gap CEO Renee Mahaffey Harris said. She’s worried that misinformation about the vaccine and hard-to-access health resources will prevent members of her community from taking an active role in their own safety.
That’s why, nearly every other week since Thanksgiving, her organization has hosted a town hall for Black Cincinnatians to ask their COVID-19 and vaccine-related questions directly — and receive direct, honest answers in return.
“As much good information or validated or factual information as we send out, there is information coming out on social media where somebody has heard something,” Mahaffey Harris said, adding later: “We have lost so many lives, and … people don't have all the information they need to make the best, informed decision about why they need to take the vaccine."
Black Ohioans make up about 13% of the state’s population but nearly 30% of its COVID-19-related deaths, according to age-standardized data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Black patients who contract the virus are more likely to be hospitalized, more likely to experience serious complications and more likely to die than other racial groups — as well as less likely, as of mid-January, to have received a vaccine. Kaiser Health News reported Jan. 17 that Black Ohioans made up only 6% of all people who had gotten at least one shot.
Part of the problem is access, especially in early phases of the vaccine rollout. Mahaffey Harris worries about the other part of it — information.
At the Health Gap’s town halls, Mahaffey Harris and panelists hear frequently from attendees who worry that the vaccine will harm their health or who believe they are healthy enough to overcome COVID-19 without a shot. One attendee said they had beaten the flu without a flu shot and felt confident they could beat COVID-19 the same way.
"Totally different," said Dr. Louito Edje, who lost four of her own family members to COVID-19. "Attacks different organs. In fact, COVID attacks every organ system we know, that's one thing, and it does it to folks who are not high-risk."
A recent NAACP survey found that misgivings about the vaccine are widespread among Black Americans — only about 14% of respondents trusted that it would be safe.
Dr. O’dell Owens, a member of Ohio’s Minority Vaccine Strike Force, said distrust of the American medical establishment runs deep in Black communities, sometimes with understandable historical precedent.
The Tuskegee experiment, which ran from the '30s to the '70s, is one of the most commonly cited examples of racial abuse in American medicine. In it, Black Alabama men with syphilis were recruited and denied treatment for decades so doctors could observe the progression of the disease.
Owens said he understands this and other historical incidents have created some of the hesitancy surrounding the vaccine today; so has misinformation on social media. But he said he believes wholeheartedly in the COVID-19 vaccine and in the need for Black Americans to receive it sooner rather than later.
"We're pushing for African-Americans to be first in line, and people are saying, ‘Oh, I don't want to be a guinea pig, I’m going to sit back,'" he said. 'Well, now you're at the back of the line and there's a shortage of the vaccine."
Mahaffey Harris plans to continue holding her town halls, meeting anxious attendees with facts and compassion. She hopes they’ll be key to closing the vaccine gap.