How an experiment that lasted 40 years has made many older African Americans reluctant to get COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 7:36 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 19:36:18-05

TAMPA, Fla. — African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Black people are more likely than white people to die from the virus. Yet, African Americans are less likely to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups.

ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill is digging deeper to find out why and what’s being done to get the lifesaving vaccine into African American communities in the Bay area.

COVID-19 has taken the world by storm and changed the way we live our lives. It has caused mass unemployment, has separated friends and family and the virus has killed more than 450,000 Americans.

The battle to save lives has also revealed significant racial disparities in our country’s health care system.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are up to three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, but of the people vaccinated in Florida, only 5% are Black even though Blacks represent 16% of the population. The major reason why is due to lack of access to the vaccine.

There is, however, a contributing factor in the lower vaccination rates: Many Black people are reluctant to even get the vaccine.

After digging further, a report from The Pew Research Center said only 42% of African Americans said they would voluntarily get the vaccine once it becomes available. That’s less than any other racial group. Many of those people who are reluctant to get the vaccine are older Black people, who are among the most vulnerable.

So, if Black people are disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19, why is there such distrust for the very thing that can save their lives? USF Professor of Africana Studies, Omotayo Jolaosho, told ABC Action News it has to do with the complicated relationship between Black people and the medical community.

In the early 1900s, syphilis was spreading with no cure in sight. So, in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service decided to conduct a six-month study using 600 Black men living in Tuskegee, Alabama as subjects.

“They told them that they were going to be getting treatment for ‘bad blood,’” said Professor Jolaosho.

The men didn’t have quote-on-quote “bad blood,” but hundreds did have syphilis. Medical scientists wanted to observe what would happen if syphilis went untreated leading up to death. The participants had no idea and the 6-month study went on for 40 years.

“When the study started, there was no cure for syphilis,” said Professor Jolaosho.

However, in the 1940s, penicillin would change the world and emerge as a cure for sexually transmitted diseases.

“So even with the knowledge that penicillin would cure syphilis, these men were denied treatment," said Professor Jolaosho.

The experiment would end in 1972 when a whistleblower exposed what was happening. The government paid a $10 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit.

This deception is still very fresh in the minds of many older African Americans.

On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for what the U.S. government did.

“What was done cannot be undone,” said President Clinton. “What the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

“We have a number of misconceptions,” said Dr. Deborah Austin from ReachUp, Inc., a local organization that provides education and access to health care to underserved communities in the Bay area.

They have been providing online discussions about COVID-19 prevention and dispelling myths about the life-saving vaccine.

She says her job isn’t easy.

“There are elders that we talk to who actually remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and are very skeptical that things like that aren’t happening like that now. We try to explain to them that there are now policies in place that won’t allow that kind of thing to happen again,” said Dr. Austin.

She says Black community leaders and pastors have been instrumental in convincing many of the elders to get vaccinated.

“Historically, African Americans have really been challenged when it came to trusting the medical community,” said Dr. Kevin Sneed from USF Health.

He is one of the people leading the charge to regain the trust of African Americans in the Bay area. Dr. Sneed said another reason it’s essential that Black people get vaccinated is that a lot of African Americans work in the service industry and are frontline workers, making them more likely to contract COVID-19.

“Many younger people right now were not around when Tuskegee occurred. They may not even be aware of everything that happened around Tuskegee, but the mistrust has been transferred from one generation to another,” he said.

He is advocating for the vaccine to be brought to African American communities in the Bay area. He says with easier access and a rigorous campaign to dispel misinformation about the vaccine, more Black people will be willing to get vaccinated.

Dr. Sneed also said it's important the medical community gains the trust of African Americans because if enough Black people decide not to be vaccinated, it'll be harder to achieve herd immunity.