The long shadow of racism in medicine leaves Black Americans wary of a COVID-19 vaccine




a close up of a sign


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As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, and the need for a vaccine has become more urgent and apparent, the number of Americans who say they would take such a vaccine keeps falling. In particular, Black Americans — who have been among those hit hardest by the pandemic — are resistant to the idea. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that only 27 percent of Black Americans and 46 percent of white Americans plan to get a coronavirus vaccine if and when one becomes available.  

The perceived politicization of the vaccine process and unprecedented pace of Operation Warp Speed has led to doubts nationwide. Until very recently, President Trump was predicting that a vaccine could arrive ahead of Election Day, Nov. 3, contradicting members of his own coronavirus task force, who have repeatedly given less optimistic time frames that have turned out to be more realistic. 

But whether a vaccine is ready next month or next year, many Americans may not trust it, even after it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in September found that 62 percent of Americans worry that political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the FDA to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure it’s safe and effective. Whether that will change if a new administration is in office after Jan. 20 remains to be seen.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA and self-proclaimed “FDA point person on COVID-19 vaccines,” wrote an op-ed Tuesday in USA Today attempting to alleviate those concerns.

“We hope to ensure public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines by being transparent about FDA’s decision-making process,” he wrote. “Whether a vaccine is made available through an EUA [emergency use authorization] or through a traditional approval, FDA will ensure that it is safe and effective.

“Trust means everything.”

Trust, experts say, is crucial to Americans’ willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine. But for many Black Americans, that trust will be difficult to earn after a long history of exploitation and abuse by the health care system has led them to be wary of the U.S. medical establishment. 



Bill Clinton wearing a suit and tie: Herman Shaw speaks during ceremonies at the White House on May 16, 1997, in which President Bill Clinton apologized to the survivors and families of the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)


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Herman Shaw speaks during ceremonies at the White House on May 16, 1997, in which President Bill Clinton apologized to the survivors and families of the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is the most famous example. Sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, the project enrolled uneducated Black men in the South without informing them of the purpose of the experiment, which was to study the natural progression of the disease. Participants went untreated for years after an effective cure had been discovered. A 1972 Associated Press story on the experiments, observing that “human beings with syphilis” had been “induced to serve as guinea pigs,” caused public outcry and finally brought the study to an end after 40

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Learning to walk again in the long shadow of COVID-19 | The Latest | Gambit Weekly

Keith Zimmer lay in a hospital bed he’d been confined to for weeks after waking up from a medically induced coma, struggling to relearn how to use a spoon. It was Oct. 4 — the same day President Donald Trump left Walter Reed Medical Center to take a Popemobile-like joy ride to demonstrate how easy COVID-19 is to overcome. 

While Trump’s display of machismo was little more than a self-serving gesture to his own ego, for Zimmer, a master mechanic, husband and father, simply picking up a spoon was a major milestone in his battle against COVID-19: That day he turned 64, and the Gentilly native would be damned if he wasn’t going to sit up and enjoy a few celebratory bites of ice cream.



keith zimmer birthday

Keith Zimmer, hospitalized by COVID-19, recovering on his birthday. 




 “He’s the guy next door; he’s a man’s man — but he loves sweets and decadent desserts,” his wife, Debbie, jokingly says about his determination to indulge his sweet tooth.

It’s been a harrowing journey for him and his family. Before he relocated to Ochsner from St. Tammany Parish Hospital — where he had first been diagnosed and cared for — signs of the illness had erratically improved, worsened and improved again, as friends and his close-knit family worried and prayed. His daughter, Kellie, a 36-year-old teacher and part-time bartender, continues to post daily updates about his condition on social media that further reveal the wide-ranging, fickle symptoms as well as the complex recovery process. 

Kellie says doctors moved her asthmatic father into an intensive care unit shortly after his initial diagnosis, because he needed more oxygen. “Then they called back to say he was being intubated,” she says. “It was like, snap, snap, snap. Nothing, then everything.” 

Then his body didn’t take kindly to the tube. “He was bleeding, and it was just encrusted with this gunk; it just builds up this gunk in your lungs, and the tube was coated,” she says. “It was like he was breathing through a straw.” 


Zimmer is one of the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who’ve experienced long-term, often life-threatening health conditions which were brought on by COVID-19 but have lingered long after the virus has left their systems. Despite claims from Trump and his allies that the virus is like the flu, doctors and public health experts say we are only beginning to understand the long-term consequences of infections, and they warn that victims of the disease could be plagued by complications for years or decades to come.



Keith Zimmer hospital



 “It’s not like being on a roller coaster,” Kellie Zimmer says of her father’s condition over the past several months. “It’s like you’re waiting on the tracks for the roller coaster to pass over you. It’s a nightmare.”

So far in Louisiana, more than 174,000 infections have been reported to the state’s health department. And as of Oct. 17, more than 5,500 people have died from

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