This pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the economic and health infrastructures of the United States. Since the first coronavirus case was reported here, more than 7 million Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus and over 200,000 have died from the virus.
For large spells, it has seemed as though this pandemic will never end; and our government’s inability to coordinate a country-wide response has not eased the public’s apprehension. However, this pandemic will end. It will end with a vaccine, but only if people take the vaccine.
As vaccine trials continue to progress, governments at all levels need to seriously think about how they will convince people to take a vaccine when one is available.
According to recent polls by the Pew Research Center and NBC News, less than half of Americans are committed to taking a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. Among people of color, mistrust for the vaccine is even more stark with only 24% of African-American adults committed to taking a vaccine compared to 48% of white American adults.
There are a lot of reasons for this mistrust. For most, the speed that coronavirus vaccines are currently being developed at raises concerns about the amount of oversight being placed to make sure a vaccine is safe and effective. In communities of color, this mistrust is further compounded by a history in which they have been exploited in the name of science.
As a scientist involved in COVID-related research, it can be easy for me to think we only need experiments and data to convince people to take a vaccine. However, this science is not happening in a vacuum and scientists along with government officials, cannot just assume people will take an approved vaccine. Building confidence in a vaccine is arguably just as important as making one.
One promising avenue for building this confidence is through community leaders such as religious leaders and city council members. Apart from offering a voice that people trust, they know the concerns and questions people in their community have about the vaccine. This unique position allows community leaders to be a point of contact between government and health officials and the community.
For example, community leaders can be used to disseminate detailed and easy-to-understand information about how trials for approved COVID-19 vaccines were conducted. This allows government and health officials to be transparent about the process while providing more intimate and trusting settings for the public to be informed. Giving people information about the entire trial process is a great way to show people the amount of scrutiny that has gone into making a vaccine.
Government and health officials can also build confidence by making themselves accessible to addressing questions and concerns leaders bring from their communities. This can happen by setting up multiple televised and recorded panel discussions in which leaders can bring specific questions people in their community have about the vaccine. These panel discussions will allow leaders to speak directly to people involved in the vaccine making process. It also allows general misconceptions about vaccines, like the belief that they cause autism, to be debunked.
Efforts to inform the public and build confidence in a COVID vaccine through community leaders are already happening on a smaller scale through organizations and universities like the National Minority Quality Forum and Johns Hopkins University. But in order to get the widespread vaccination that is needed to end the pandemic, local, state and federal governments need to get involved.
As someone who grew up in Worcester, I know there are many communities built around places of worship, cultural centers and schools — to name a few. During local campaigns, city officials desperately seek the support of leaders in these communities because they know of their immense influence. During a desperate time like this, this influence should not be ignored. If we wait for people to take a vaccine when they feel like it, we may have to wait longer than our jobs — and even lives — can survive.
Kenneth Adusei was raised in Worcester and recently graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. He’s working at the National Institutes of Health doing COVID-related research.
Read More: Opinion: Enlisting community leaders to solve vaccine trust problem – News –