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To boost Black vaccination rates, Pitt study advises focusing on people's concerns

A Black healthcare worker gives a COVID-19 vaccine to a Black patient.
Matt Rourke
In this March 26, 2021, file photo, a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a vaccination site at a Salvation Army location in Philadelphia.

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Black communities — both locally and nationally — continue to lag behind other groups, and new research from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health aims to better understand why.

Black Americans are more likely to become severely ill or die from COVID-19. Researchers and community leaders, including Pittsburgh’s Black Equity Coalition, say historic and current injustices, along with structural racism within the medical system, contribute to these higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.

To drill down into people’s specific concerns, Pitt epidemiologists, in collaboration with the Black Equity Coalition, surveyed nearly 400 Black Allegheny County residents in which respondents were asked why they were or were not vaccinated. Among those who hadn’t been vaccinated, top reasons were the fear of illness, not knowing the shot's long-term effects, and fear of side effects.

The survey also asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “When it comes to COVID-19, black people cannot trust health care providers,” and “Black people should be suspicious of information from the government about COVID-19.”

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The results show that people have lingering concerns that remain unanswered and need to be taken seriously, said lead author Ashley Hill.

“One of the things that we can really do better moving forward in what we can take as a lesson learned from our initial rollout is to really listen to what people are asking and really make sure that we're addressing their concerns and their problems,” said Hill. 

For example, Hill cites the “Ask a Black Doctor” series from 1Hood Media as a great initiative in which physicians from Pittsburgh’s Black community took the time to thoughtfully answer questions about COVID-19 and the vaccines.

Because the vaccines have been out for a while now, there’s more data that shows they’re safe and beneficial. And this, said Hill, presents an opportunity to answer people’s questions more thoroughly and conclusively than was possible a couple years ago.

The study was published in the journal Health Equity.

Editor's note: The Black Equity Coalition has provided support for WESA reporting.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.