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Fighting COVID-19 Vaccine Mistrust In The Black Community

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Black Americans have been hard hit by COVID-19, but polls say many are also hesitant to get a COVID vaccine shot. The Reverend Liz Walker of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston says she understands those concerns. But within her congregation and across the state, she's trying to overcome that mistrust and convince people that a vaccine will be safe and helpful for Black Americans. The Reverend Walker was previously a well-known local television anchor in Boston, joins us. Reverend Walker, thanks so much for being with us.

LIZ WALKER: Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: Help us understand why you know why many Black Americans may be skeptical of a vaccine.

WALKER: Well, Scott, you know, Black people have been traumatized by a betrayal of the system forever for generations. And so the mistrust is about betrayal. People have believed in systems, and systems have failed them. The health care system has failed them. We have all now talked about the experiment that used people with syphilis in Tuskegee. We all know about Henrietta Lacks.

But there's also this issue of day-to-day injustice. And that's the issue of being ignored or talked down to or judged by doctors, by health care workers.

SIMON: What do you say, Reverend?

WALKER: I think the risk of the - a vaccine is less than the risk of the disease. You know, people are - just have lots of questions about how quickly it was all coming together. And with the politicization of this, it's been like a perfect storm of distrust. And so we say, yes, all that is true. It's horrible. But here are the facts. And we bring in doctors, and we talk to, you know, health care specialists. And we talk to all the people from our community. We try to find people of color, actually, to tell them, you need to take this vaccine. We give the information, and then people have to make their own choices.

SIMON: I gather Dr. Fauci spoke to your church over Zoom recently.

WALKER: That's how all this started, Scott, because when you hear about the fact that your community is just not going to respond, you try to do something drastic. I called the National Institutes of Health. After someone gave me the email address, I, you know, wrote my little email. I was shocked when Dr. Fauci said he would be glad to talk. And we are trying to reach out to people in our own community to talk to people, to allay their fears, to give them facts. You know, we don't know everything about this vaccine, but here's what we know.

SIMON: What kind of trail has COVID left in your community?

WALKER: COVID has been devastating in my community. I have a small Presbyterian church of about 150 people max, but we've had several cases of COVID. I would say, probably - I'm going to say 20 now because people - some people don't tell you. Some people you hear through other people. But every Sunday, you pray for those who have lost people. And people are hurting. I was talking to a funeral director who told me the first several weeks of the COVID devastation, he did 180 funerals in a month. Now, that's insane. But that's the kind of thing that's going on.

SIMON: Reverend Walker, do you have concerns that the vaccine won't be distributed equally, that it won't reach many people in Black communities where it's needed?

WALKER: Oh, no. I'm - no, I'm very confident that this time, there's going to be fairness because we're going to demand fairness and we're going to hold people accountable and we're going to watch it. So I think there are enough people who are - I am just one person of many who are watching this. And we will make sure that people are - you know, who want the vaccine will get the vaccine.

SIMON: The Reverend Liz Walker in Boston, thanks so much for being with us.

WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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