As coronavirus variants circulate Baltimore, the vaccine debate persists within the Black community

The Black community remains hesitant to take the vaccine after a long history of medical negligence.


Edoghogho Ugiagbe

Surafel Hailu, a sophomore nursing major, received his first dosage of the Pfizer vaccine in late January.

Jordan D. Brown, Features Editor

As Morgan State approaches another virtual semester, the university is moving towards a hybrid instruction plan, even as new variants of the coronavirus are circulating in the Baltimore area. 

On Jan. 30, the first case of the South African coronavirus variant was detected in Baltimore and two cases have been discovered in the state of Maryland since. The new variants spread both easier and quicker than other variants of the disease, but it is unknown how they will affect the current coronavirus vaccine being distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

38.5 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in the U.S. and the number continues to increase, with a daily average of 1.36 million doses. The CDC recommended people over the age of 65, people ages 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions, health care workers and frontline essential workers be prioritized in receiving early dosages of the vaccine.

Surafel Hailu, a sophomore nursing major, received his first dosage of the Pfizer vaccine in late January. As a nursing assistant at Lorien Health Services in Columbia, Md., Hailu had to get vaccinated as soon as possible to better help his community as an essential worker and be relieved from the anxieties of catching the virus.

Hailu walks into the student center to get tested for COVID-19, something nursing majors must do multiple times per week. (Edoghogho Ugiagbe)

“I saw it in terms of, if I take it now and my body reacts well to it, I can really help without feeling the stress of always looking around on my shoulder because I’m a healthcare worker,” he said. “I’m working the front lines, so if I interact with anyone with COVID and I get it, I’m trapped.”

Starting Feb. 11, citizens will have a better chance of receiving the vaccine as the Biden administration plans to deliver about 10.5 million doses to retail pharmacies across the nation. In the state of Maryland, 51 pharmacies, supermarkets and superstores will administer the vaccine. 

Although the vaccine is being distributed throughout the country, millions of people have opposing views towards getting vaccinated. In particular, there is a significant hesitation in taking it within the Black community. According to the CDC, African Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 in comparison to White people.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported 43 percent of Black adults have decided to wait and see how the vaccine will affect other people in comparison to the 37 percent of Hispanic adults and 26 percent of White adults. 

Bridget Mahn, a sophomore business administration major, is not interested in getting the COVID-19 vaccination.

“Personally I’m not a fan of vaccines just because you never truly know what you’re being injected with,” Mahn said. “Plus I’ve been in this pandemic for an entire year now and have stayed COVID free the entire time, just by doing the basic guidelines, so honestly I think the vaccine will do more harm than good.”

The lack of interest and hesitation from the Black community in taking the vaccine comes from several directions, but Panagis Galiatsatos, the co-chair for the Johns Hopkins Health System Health Equity Team, said he believes it’s a result of a long history of vaccinations and medicine negatively affecting African Americans. 

“For the Black community, a lot of it is associated with historical context,” Galiatsatos said. “Constant times where medicine’s notion of public trust was broken, you can point to Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks.”

Galiatsatos said the Tuskegee experiment and the life of Henrietta Lacks are two primary examples of medical malpractice towards Black people. 

The Tuskegee experiment was an unethical medical study where 600 Black male participants were unknowingly enrolled in a project to study the progression of syphilis as doctors told participants they would be treated for bad blood. As for Henrietta Lacks, she unintentionally donated her unique cells to Johns Hopkins Hospital during her cervical cancer treatment in 1951. Although she died from the disease at 31, her cells, also known as HeLa cells, are still being used today in the medical field.

“The Black community’s distrust of medicine and academic institutions has been there for decades, built around institutional racism and the lack of perceived care for them,” Galiatsatos said.

Kim Sydnor, the dean of the School of Community Health and Policy, also emphasized the high levels of distrust with this particular vaccine. 

“The vaccine is really all about trust,” Sydnor said. “People are asking us to trust the science, trust the medical system, and get the vaccine but I think for some people in the Black community, that’s a leap too far until they get more information from credible sources.”

Morgan State President David Wilson received his first dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 9, encouraging his community to take the vaccine as soon as they can. 

“I understand that within the Black community, there is not a high level of trust in vaccination given our history,” Wilson said in a January interview with The Spokesman. “So with that understanding, I also understand my role as president at Morgan, which is to show based on my own taking of the vaccine, that I believe it.”

Although there are millions of citizens against the idea of taking the vaccine anytime soon, 41 percent of Americans are open to receiving the vaccine as soon as they can, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

Jada Avery, a freshman nursing major, originally questioned taking the vaccine. But after seeing how COVID-19 affected people across the world in addition to those in her personal life, she said the vaccine would provide her with health security. 

“I’m on campus for one and I’m interacting with people,” Avery said. “Even before I was on campus, I was working a job, going out with precautions, of course, wearing a mask and washing my hands. But it would just be better having the security with the vaccine.”

Whether one decides to take the vaccine or not, Sydnor said people should reach out to their primary care physicians, do independent research and determine whether it’s the best choice for them.

“We’ve been encouraging folks not to play the shame game,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the way to get people to take the vaccine. It’s ‘Oh, you don’t want to take the vaccine? Talk to me about what your concerns and issues are.’”

This story is a part of “Black Health Matters,” a year-long reporting program through The Poynter Institute’s College Media Project. The project’s objective: to tell health-related stories through the lens of Black college students, while examining possible solutions.