What Hartford has learned in its fight to raise Black vaccination rates

About 72 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. During much of the vaccine rollout, Hispanic and Black Americans have been less likely to get vaccinated. The gap between white and Hispanic Americans has largely closed, but the vaccination rate for the Black community still lags significantly behind. Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One year after COVID vaccines were first made available, the vaccination rate for Black Americans still lags significantly behind.

    In this report co-produced with the "NewsHour," Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney looks at the hard process of changing minds.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Each morning, after Anthony Williams opens his barbershop in Hartford, Connecticut, he gladly offers a steady stream of opinion with his haircuts.

  • Anthony Williams, Owner, J.A.W.S Barbershop:

    You know what they say having kids is like? Having a best friend with no money.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sarah Varney:

    But, these days, much of the talk centers on COVID vaccines.

  • Anthony Williams:

    Jordan, you had to get vaccinated for school, right?

  • Sarah Varney:

    For nearly a year, Williams shared his deep skepticism about the vaccine with his customers, pointing to unfounded anti-vaccine YouTube videos.

  • Anthony Williams:

    In the beginning, I was just a little wary. A lot of people say long-term effects. And it was just — everything was happening so fast. The news drove fear.

    I don't generally, like, take headache medicine, pain medicine myself. So, it was just a — it was the unknown for me.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Williams and his wife, Anicka, run a local juice bar and have five children. In August, their 16-year-old daughter, Layloni, asked to get vaccinated so she could go back to school without worrying.

    Although Anicka was also wary of the vaccine, she decided to get vaccinated alongside her daughter. But Anthony still didn't budge.

  • Anicka Williams, Co-Owner, Health Is Wealth Juice Bar:

    And I feel like we respect each other's bodies, and what we feel like we put in and out. And I think just having those conversations up front and forward in the beginning… and his opinions and his reasons why he didn't was very clear, and mine's was too.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Then, in November, Anthony's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and rushed into surgery. The hospital wouldn't let him visit because he was unvaccinated. That was the push he needed.

  • Anthony Williams:

    You see daddy getting the vaccine?

    That was my first time, like, COVID smacked me in the face, like, 'Hah, hah, you can't go see your mom.' And I had to go do it. And that was like a — that wasn't even a decision. All the combative arguing we did, and it was just quick. That happened on Friday. I was vaccinated Sunday.

  • Sarah Varney:

    After months of mass vaccination sites and drive-through clinics, this is the effort now, block by block.

  • T.J. Clarke II, Charter Oak Health Center:

    There is no greater disparity when you compare the urban population of Hartford…

  • Sarah Varney:

    T.J. Clarke, who works in public health in Hartford, says that is especially true in Black communities, where vaccination rates often trail those of whites.

    How many miles divide West Hartford and North Hartford?

  • T.J. Clarke II:

    Only a few miles.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Clarke is also majority leader of the City Council. He says Hartford has a long history of racial and economic divisions. Here in Northeast Hartford, life expectancy is 15 years lower than in West Hartford Center, where upscale homes and prosperous shops signal the majority white neighborhood.

    In Connecticut, 75 percent of whites have received at least one dose, but only 59 percent of Blacks.

    In this neighborhood, what would you expect the vaccination rate to be?

  • T.J. Clarke II:

    Eighty to 85, maybe 90 percent of the population of West Hartford would be deemed as fully vaccinated.

  • Sarah Varney:

    And what accounts for that? Is it just access? People here in West Hartford have better access to getting the vaccine?

  • T.J. Clarke II:

    Access is tremendously better. It's 1,000 times better. And then, because you do have people who are paying attention, they are hooked up to their devices, they seem to have some type of insight from some of the industry professionals as well.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Although nationwide, the racial divide has narrowed in recent months, large gaps persist between Blacks and whites in Florida, North and South Dakota, Vermont, Michigan, and in Connecticut.

    It's been a year since COVID vaccines became available, but, here in Connecticut, the vaccination gap between Blacks and whites is one of the largest in the nation. Hartford's community leaders have been trying to perfect their message for months, but they are still trying to crack the code.

    Keith Grant is the senior system director for infection prevention at Hartford HealthCare. He has tried one approach after another.

    For one effort, he surveyed about 1,200 patients, and many responded that lack of transportation was the reason they didn't get vaccinated. So, Hartford HealthCare spent $1.4 million to set up a rideshare program. The results were disappointing.

    So, they told you, 'We need transportation.' You delivered transportation, and less than 20 percent took you up on it.

  • Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare:

    Less than 20 percent took us up on it.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Why do you think that is?

  • Keith Grant:

    That's one of our biggest challenges. Some individuals, the timing wasn't right. For some individuals, they still didn't really believe in the vaccine or believe in the actual process itself.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Grant says there have been wins, but understanding the losses is critical.

  • Keith Grant:

    Well, because losing — unlike many things in business and health care, losing is not just the metrics now. It's like people. These are actual people.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Individual people who haven't gotten vaccinated and are at risk.

  • Keith Grant:

    A hundred percent.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Now Grant is moving well beyond the hospital campus, working closely with those who can influence the Black community.

  • Pastor Michael Bailey, The First Cathedral:

    A lot is on my mind about this vaccination…

  • Sarah Varney:

    That includes Pastors Michael Bailey and LeRoy Bailey III at the First Cathedral, one of the largest Black churches in the area, and Brandon McGee, a Democratic state representative.

    The church is already hosting vaccine clinics like this one. But these men are trying to untangle the many reasons Black residents aren't getting vaccinated.

  • State. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-CT):

    Folks are struggling, and some of the immediate needs, like food, shelter, access to just health care in general, that's at top of mind.

    So, when you begin talking about, 'You want me to go get tested, you want me to figure out this vaccine, and I'm reading on the news what's happening, I'm confused. I just need some money for my food.'

  • Keith Grant:

    Yeah. 'Help me put food on the table.'

  • Pastor LeRoy Bailey III, The First Cathedral:

    'And I don't got time to get sick, because I have got to deal with all these other issues. I don't got time.'

    I think one of the main problems is that people are scared. That's real. How do we get fear out of people? And I think that's an issue, especially in our community.

  • Sarah Varney:

    McGee says his constituents tell him all the time that they distrust the government because of cases like the Tuskegee syphilis study in which government researchers deliberately withheld treatment for poor Black men. But he says this is a different moment.

  • State. Rep. Brandon McGee:

    We were tested on. So, I hear you. I hear you. But now we have an opportunity as a community, as leaders to turn that page, and say, 'Look, if you want to be healthy, you want to live, you might want to be vaccinated.'

  • Sarah Varney:

    Of course, the Black community is not monolithic. And many Black Americans have been vaccinated.

  • Donna Trowers-Morrison, North United Methodist Church:

    I think, the first time we had the clinic, it was about 70 people that came out.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Jamaican immigrant Donna Trowers-Morrison asked her pastor at North United Methodist Church to urge parishioners to attend a vaccine clinic she organized.

    It was a huge success. Hartford has a thriving Caribbean immigrant population that Trowers-Morrison says has a different history.

  • Donna Trowers-Morrison:

    As a Caribbean people, we accept it. We accept the system more just because we weren't a part of the history of what happened in the past.

  • Sarah Varney:

    But tough work remains.

    At Anthony Williams' barbershop, he's been taking a lot of flak for changing his mind about the vaccine.

  • Anthony Williams:

    Look, now I'm a sellout. This is crazy.

  • Man:

    You are a sellout.

  • Anthony Williams:

    I am not a sellout, bro. I had…

  • Man:

    What happened?

  • Sarah Varney:

    This man, Taj Gibson, says there's nothing Williams can say or do to convince him until the vaccine has been out longer.

    What would it be for you, though, if you had to put a number on it? Would it be after a year, after two years? Do you want to see 10 years?

  • Taj Gibson, Vaccine Skeptic:

    Three to five years. Three to five years.

  • Sarah Varney:

    And so what do you make of the millions and millions of people that have gotten the vaccine and have been OK?

  • Taj Gibson:

    Everybody is different. Everybody's individual body is different.

  • Sarah Varney:

    It's been quite a journey for Williams. He's had a change of heart, not only about the vaccine's safety, but also what he now sees as his responsibility to convince others. He's working on them one at a time.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Kaiser Health News, I'm Sarah Varney in Hartford, Connecticut.

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