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Trust Is Key To Combat COVID Vaccine Hesitancy, Experts Say

Courtesy of Immigrant Welcome Center
Two Natural Helper Specialists, Francisco Ruiz and Virna Diaz, collecting Mask Up posters to distribute to immigrant owned businesses for COVID-19 prevention.

With COVID-19 limiting gatherings, the Westside Community Development Corp. had to get creative for a recent wellness event. 

So it hosted a Health and Wealth event on Facebook to provide information on public health topics, including the vaccines. There were discussions with representatives from organizations such as local health departments, as well as live music performances.

“So it was truly an event,” says Brittany Crone, a community health worker with Westside CDC. “Whereas we would love to do this in person, we can't right now. And so we tried to make it as entertaining and informative, and relevant as possible as we can.”

She says the event also had a broader purpose. “We really wanted to emphasize the ways that we believe can empower our community, specifically, our residents in the near West and our Black community in the near Wests as well.”

Crone says her job is to build relationships with community members and connect them with health resources. That’s especially important when addressing the pandemic. 

A December study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35 percent of Black adults in America were reluctant to get a COVID vaccine. In Indianapolis, only 19 percent of Black residents age 70 and older have received the vaccine, officials said on Feb. 11; that’s compared to 32 percent of whites in that age group.

Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine acknowledges the challenge of reaching minority communities where many are hesitant to get a vaccine.

“So I think you have to tell people, give them a history, you have to educate them,” she says. “But you have to take their concerns very seriously. And you have to address it. 

“And you have to provide as much education as you can. And we need trusted community leaders out there, doing that outreach, talking about the importance and benefit of this vaccine.”

Caine adds that sometimes, it just takes patience. “People like to observe, they want to see someone get the vaccine and know, someone they know, close up and personal. Did all right with it.”

Ross Silverman, a health law and policy professor at Indiana University, says some members of the Black community have a mistrust of the medical system. 

“You know, there's a long distance between some people in trust, based on experience, personal experiences, as well as history,” he says. “And so we have to respect that.”

Silverman, who sits on a committee that advises officials on the vaccine rollout plan, says some of that mistrust comes from systemic racism in the medical field. That includes the infamous Tuskegee experiment, which denied penicillin treatments to syphilis patients. 

He adds, “We can tell you, ‘When the vaccine becomes available, I'm gonna get it, my family's gonna get it.’ And we need to make sure that folks hear from people that they similarly trust, that are going to come to the same conclusion.”

In Indiana, the Red Cross has created a coalition aimed at combating vaccine hesitancy in minority communities. 

“I think in the minority community, especially in Black and Latinx communities, the hesitancy stems from hundreds of years of oppression from the medical system and from the government,” says Chad Priest, CEO of the American Red Cross Indiana. “And that hesitancy is passed down from generation to generation, and reinforced in lots of ways.”

Priest says to overcome vaccine hesitancy, trust needs to be regained. And that is “a much more difficult proposition that requires a very different approach than simply telling someone, ‘Hey, you should take the vaccine.’”

The American Red Cross is working with organizations, including religious groups and nonprofits, that are already grounded in communities. Priest says they can engage in community conversations that “allow people to get through the vaccine decision-making process in a way that respects their autonomy, and encourages them to access the best and most factual information available.”

By partnering with these community organizations, the coalition aims to create a safe space for people to come with questions and concerns. They’re hosting forums, events and listening sessions to connect with residents.  

“I think sometimes we rush to educate,” Priest says. “And I think that is problematic for a lot of reasons, including that it denies the history and lived experience of our neighbors.

“The reality is most people are going to get vaccinated. The question is when and how do we accelerate the trust and comfort of our Black and Latinx neighbors who are shouldering a disproportionate burden of the disease?”

Amy Shackleford of the Immigrant Welcome Center says language can be a big barrier when it comes to understanding the pandemic and how to stay safe.

“All the data showed us that immigrants and refugees are more at risk for COVID, and less able to access information and services that they need,” she says.

The nonprofit center, which helps immigrants and refugees integrate into the Indianapolis community, has launched a Natural Helpers Specialist program. Immigrant and refugee leaders do outreach in communities that might otherwise be hard to reach. 

They represent about 20 languages, Shackleford says. “And they work with them in their native language to not just connect them to resources and services they need to help them recover from the pandemic. But they’ve also been doing public education workshops and presentations.”

The helpers provide information on testing sites, answer vaccine questions and help debunk myths about the pandemic. They are also translating COVID-19 resources and distributing face masks. 

Shackleford says to combat vaccine hesitancy, relationships need to be built within communities.

“Trust is established when you're able to talk to someone in the language that you prefer to speak in,” she says. “And someone who understands what you've been through and what your experience has been, so that they know that the resources and the information we're sharing is safe, and can be trusted.”

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Darian Benson is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis. She can be reached at