Vaccine distribution raises questions for wary Americans

Many black Americans, Republicans and people in rural areas are taking a wait-and-see approach to the vaccine

FILE PHOTO: Nurse Cheryl Birmingham administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to registered nurse La Tanya Forbes at Memorial Healthcare System facility in Miramar, Florida, U.S., December 14, 2020. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
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The distribution of the first coronavirus vaccines was celebrated in the US this week as the country began to fight back against the virus that has killed more than 300,000 people, caused mass layoffs and stoked political divisions.

As intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay rolled up her sleeve to receive a shot in New York on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo praised healthcare "heroes" and called inoculations the "weapon that will end the war".

But vaccination campaigns raise their own headaches.

Some fear the rich and well-connected will elbow their way to the front of the line, while others doubt the safety of vaccines that have been researched, tested and made at record-breaking speeds.

This is especially true of African Americans, who have been badly hit by the pandemic, are poorly served by the country’s decentralised healthcare system and have historically experienced abuse at the hands of white doctors.

It did not go unnoticed that Ms Lindsay, Dr Yves Duroseau, the second person to receive the vaccine, and Dr Michelle Chester, the doctor who administered the shots at Long Island Jewish Medical Centre in Queens, New York, were all black.

New York vaccinates frontline nurse in first for state amid pandemic

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Jade Ledgister, a Jamaican-American banker, was one of many social media users to question whether the rapidly produced vaccine was safe and why it was being used for the first time on blacks.

"It boils down to the fact that black people are always the guinea pig," Ms Ledgister told The National.

“If it goes wrong, it's a case of black people that are most adversely affected. They'll just write that down in their scientific journal. So I personally don't trust it.”

Ms Ledgister spoke of dark moments in US history, including Dr J Marion Sims, who was once praised as the “father of modern gynaecology” for his pioneering work on fistulas, but who experimented on enslaved black women without anaesthesia.

And starting in 1932, the US government studied hundreds of black American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who were deliberately left untreated for syphilis even after penicillin had been discovered.

Ms Ledgister said she was inoculated against other diseases and was “not an anti-vaxxer”, a hardline but fragmented movement that claims vaccines cause autism and other health problems.

“I want to wait and see. I don't want to be the first guinea pig,” she said.

“I want other people to go ahead. Let me first see if they have any immediate reactions.”

A study this month by the Pew Research Centre found that while 71 per cent of black Americans know someone who has been put in hospital or died from Covid-19, only 42 per cent said they would be willing to get a vaccine.

Black Americans are sceptical, but many others are as well.

Only 61 per cent of whites said they would definitely or probably be vaccinated, compared to 63 per cent of Hispanics and 83 per cent of Asian Americans.

Overall, 39 per cent of Americans say they would not receive a coronavirus vaccine, including 21 per cent of adults who said they were “pretty certain” they would not change their mind when faced with new information.

A survey released on Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a quarter of Americans said they probably or definitely would not receive a vaccine.

Republicans, black Americans and people living in rural areas were the most hesitant.

This causes a problem for federal health chiefs, who say a large number of Americans must receive vaccines to reach herd immunity and restore normality after months of lockdowns.

Ms Lindsay said Americans must “do our part” by receiving shots and protecting people at large, including the elderly and high-risk groups.

But, Ms Ledgister is not alone in wanting to wait and see.

Beyond general concerns about the fast pace of vaccine development is the anti-vaxxer movement, whose members espouse notions of vaccine flaws and conspiracy theories about global elites using the vaccines as a way to introduce tracking chips.

These ideas have been stoked by President Donald Trump, who played down the scale of the pandemic, belittled government scientists and proposed methods such as injecting disinfectant as a Covid-19 cure.

“When you have an anti-science element together with a divisiveness in the country, it will be challenging,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert, said on Friday.

“But you know, we’ve done challenging things before.”

The Trump administration this week began the $250 million Building Vaccine Confidence campaign, a public education effort to encourage Americans to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

Officials also have the more urgent task of sending millions of doses of vaccines across the country on lorries and jets in the super-cold storage required for Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine.

US officials are expected to grant emergency approval to Moderna’s vaccine on Friday.

The distribution of about six million doses of the second vaccine would help the effort.

But a coming major winter storm threatens to snarl distribution in the north-east.