Since COVID-19 vaccines were first developed and distributed, anti-vaccine activists have attempted to capitalize on the institutional mistrust some Black Americans have for the medical system by invoking the legacy of the Tuskegee Study. Their goal appears to be to link what happened decades ago under very different circumstances to the drive to get all Americans, including Americans of color, vaccinated to protect them against COVID-19.
The false theory that the effort to vaccinate all Americans, including Black Americans, is part of a government drive or conspiracy against people of color to vaccinate them is refuted by the facts.
Far from being a vaccine being forced on the Black community, early in the pandemic white Americans were seen going into communities of color to obtain the vaccine when it was not easily available where they lived. Furthermore, on Jan. 21, 2021, President Biden launched a comprehensive strategy to make the vaccine available to all Americans, with a target of making every adult in the United States eligible for the vaccine by May 1, 2021. Far from attempting to target only Black Americans, federal and state governments made a concerted effort to ensure the availability of the vaccine for all Americans. If anything the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has had equity and access issues, as has been discussed in a previous AmNews article, which means that far from the vaccines being pushed on communities of color, many in our communities have found it challenging to access the vaccines.
With respect to the actual numbers, vaccination rates among whites are higher in NYC than Black New Yorkers and have been that way for the entire pandemic. Additionally, numerous studies have demonstrated that not only are COVID-19 vaccines safe but that they are far safer than contracting COVID-19.
Finally, Black Americans who are not vaccinated are dying of COVID at higher rates than their white counterparts. And while Black New Yorkers make up just 22% of the population in New York City, as of Feb. 27, 2022, they accounted for 29% of the city’s COVID deaths. According to NYC Health’s report “Racial Inequities in COVID-19 Hospitalizations During the Omicron Wave in NYC,” the COVID-19 hospitalization rate was over two times greater among Black New Yorkers than among white New Yorkers during the Omicron wave in December 2021 and January 2022 in New York City.
The report makes a direct link between lower vaccination levels among Black New Yorkers and increased levels of hospitalizations. “COVID-19 vaccines play a central role in preventing infection and particularly in preventing serious illness. We observed delays in primary series vaccination among Black New Yorkers and lower rates of booster doses among eligible Black New Yorkers by winter 2021 when the Omicron surge began.”
History of the “Tuskegee Study”
Due to various historical myths––among them, the idea that Black Americans were biologically inferior to their white counterparts; that Black healthcare workers were less capable than white healthcare workers, and that poor health in Black communities would spread to non-Black communities––the federal government instituted several programs in the 1930s to combat what was viewed as the proliferation of disease in the Black community. The most notorious of these programs was the “Tuskegee Study.” The official title of the study was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” although today it is referred to as the “USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.”
The issue the government was attempting to address was how to treat and study a subset of the 35% of Black residents in Macon County, AL infected with syphilis. The study was based on an earlier Oslo, Norway study which observed syphilis in untreated men. There were 399 men selected to participate in the study. They were also given spinal taps and told these were shots for their backs. The study was problematic both because it was an observational study of men with a deadly disease which gave the men no informed consent and because the study utilized deception, telling the men they had “bad blood,” when in fact the study team knew they had syphilis. By the early 1940s, when penicillin was the treatment utilized for syphilis, these men were denied access to that treatment. The study would continue for almost another 30 years until a 1972 Associated Press story revealed the study, which led to an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel review.
In 2021 Simar Singh Bajaj and Fatima Cody Stanford published the article “Beyond Tuskegee––Vaccine Distrust and Everyday Racism” in which they discussed how the legacy of studies such as Tuskegee is just one of many factors in the distrust of the medical system some Black Americans have.
“[N]ot every Black American is aware of these atrocities or would blame them for their distrust. Yet every Black person knows their personal challenges in navigating health care institutions, perhaps even more so during this pandemic. Daily subtle mental assaults are more salient in explaining a lack of trust in medical institutions and, by extension, in COVID vaccines. Framing the conversation about distrust in COVID vaccines in terms of everyday racism rather than historical atrocities may increase underserved communities’ willingness to be vaccinated. When we hyperfocus on Sims, Lacks, and Tuskegee, we ascribe the current Black health experience to past racism, rooting our present in immovable historical occurrences and undermining efforts to combat mistrust. Everyday racism, by contrast, can be tackled in the present,” they wrote.
While the legacy of Tuskegee stays with us and the impact of medical racism still pervades American society, all the data we have collected shows that COVID-19 vaccines are among the best tools Black and Brown Americans have to keep themselves and our communities safe during the pandemic.