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Report: Black Arkansans who experienced racism can be hesitant to get COVID vaccine

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences UAMS
UAMS researchers found a connection between Black people being hesitant to get vaccinated based on past experiences with racial discrimination.

Research from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has found a link between past racial discrimination and Black people having a hesitancy to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

According to a report by the Arkansas Department of Health last July, about 41% of eligible Black Arkansans statewide had been vaccinated, while in some counties, more than 70% remained unvaccinated. About 1,500 residents were polled, with an oversampling of minority residents. According to the research report, 381 residents self-identified as Black, including 13 people who selected multiple racial identities.

Dr. Don Willis, an associate professor with UAMS, said he noticed that despite about half of the recipients not being hesitant at all, there were a variety of reasons given for some level of hesitation.

He said roughly 22% of the surveyed adult Black Arkansas residents were very hesitant, around 14% were somewhat hesitant, and another 14% were a little bit hesitant.

“Their odds of being hesitant towards a COVID vaccine decreased as age increased and as things like past influenza vaccination increased,” Willis said in an interview. “But their odds of hesitancy increased if, for example, they had experienced the death of a close friend or family member due to COVID and if they reported experiencing racial discrimination with police or in courts.”

He said the research should encourage Arkansans to look outside the health industry to better understand why certain groups are not getting vaccinated.

“If we want to address racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccination, which is important in turn for addressing racial disparities in COVID outcomes, that we need to look beyond just the medical institutions. That we might need to also look at our criminal justice system and other powerful institutions across the state and how those might be shaping individuals’ attitudes towards vaccinations,” Willis said.

According to Willis, the goal of the UAMS study was to provide contextualization to racial disparities. He said the reporting of racial differences without any investigation into why those differences occurred could lead to a narrative of victim blaming.

“If we just report racial disparities and vaccine hesitancy, we could contribute to a sort of misunderstandings of hesitancy. So, our goal was to contextualize a bit more and to do a better job of understanding why hesitancy might be high among some Black individuals,” said Willis.

As COVID-19 cases are beginning to rise again, vaccine hesitancy is a pertinent issue, Willis said. The vaccine is highly protective, he said, and is especially important as other safety measures are being relaxed.

“My main takeaway message for any vaccine campaign would be to really try and understand from the perspectives of individuals who you want to be vaccinated,” said Willis. “How they perceive the vaccine and if they are hesitant to try and understand the reasons why. I think there’s been a sort of caricature painted of hesitant individuals that doesn’t fully appreciate all the nuances and complexities of how people come to view the vaccine the way they view it.”

He said studies with larger sample sizes are in the works to better understand the issue.

Remington Miller was an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program. She later worked as a reporter and editor for the station.
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