In this interview, Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH, president of the National Medical Association (NMA), speaks to Medical News Today about vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans and some of the initiatives that are successfully tackling this issue.

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In November 2020, just 42% of Black Americans were willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Given that Black adults are, according to some studies, 3 times more likely to contract the new coronavirus than white adults, the high level of vaccine hesitancy among this population is of particular concern.

Much of this vaccine hesitancy is deeply rooted in centuries of oppression and white supremacist beliefs that informed medically exploitative practices against Black folks. With its long history of medical experimentation and other abusive practices, the medical establishment has “earned” the distrust of many Black Americans. 

But, as Prof. McDougle has told Medical News Today, this is the time to be “solutions-focused.” It is a time to focus on “building bridges” to overcome medical mistrust.

Prof. McDougle is Chief Diversity Officer, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. He spoke with MNT about some of the efforts that Black healthcare professionals and organizations have made, their successful results, and his hopes for the future. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Article highlights:

MNT: What can we do to tackle COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans?

Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH: Well, to start, there has been an improvement. Looking at the Kaiser Family Foundation survey in September, 50% were willing to receive the vaccine, whereas just most recently in December, that improved to 62%, and at that same time, 35% said that they were unwilling to receive the vaccine. 

So that’s why the Black Coalition Against COVID — which includes a consortium of four Black medical schools: Howard, Morehouse, Meharry, and Charles R. Drew, along with the NMA, the National Black Nurses Association, the Montague Cobb Health Institute, the National Urban League, and — have come together to speak to the Black community to inform them about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. 

So, in part, the answer to your question is that Black healthcare professionals need to be speaking to the Black community about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.

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MNT: Have you seen any more local initiatives that have yielded good results in this respect?

Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH: Another good question. I would look to the state of Michigan and what they’re doing there. There’s been a statewide effort to improve health literacy, speak about COVID-19, and diminish disparities seen in health outcomes. So, even though I’m from Ohio, I would look to Michigan for an example of such interventions.

MNT: Is there anything in particular about the safety of the vaccine that you would like our readers to know?

Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH: So, the NMA established this COVID-19 Task Force on vaccines and therapeutics, and we’ve been meeting with Pfizer, we’ve been meeting with the scientists from Moderna, and we looked at the data provided to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Our task force comprises pediatric infectious disease specialists, adult infectious disease specialists, preventive medicine specialists, and public health specialists. 

We looked at this from a lens of speaking to Black doctors and the Black community, and we support the emergency use authorization provided by the FDA for both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

MNT: What do you think is the responsibility of healthcare journalists in rebuilding medical trust and getting more and more people in the Black community to get vaccinated?

Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH: I would provide a megaphone and an audience for those already existing trusted messengers in the Black community, just like you reached out to me here today in sharing this message across the world. I think what you’re doing is very important and also involving Black media in this dissemination of information I think is critical.

[I] think the focus of this interview is that we’re speaking about solutions. This is a solutions-focused-time. [W]e talked about building bridges to overcome that mistrust, so I would really encourage us to focus on solutions.

MNT: Speaking of solutions, is there anything more specific on a policy level you would like to see implemented?

Prof. Leon McDougle, MD, MPH: On a policy level, more federal coordination of the dissemination of the vaccine, so that rural, urban, and under-resourced communities have equity and access to the vaccines.

These are people living in long-term care facilities, older adults who don’t have transportation, and those living at home. And I know from speaking with members of the Biden-Harris’ transition team, that type of information and plan is included and forthcoming.

So, implementing those types of strategies and tactics to stomp out COVID-19, I think, will be very important.

I am hopeful, looking at data and science. We have the technology and the means to get this done.

Having a concerted focus on mitigating COVID-19 and its disparate effects will be very welcomed by members of the NMA.

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