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Pastor says medical mistrust is an obstacle to vaccination

People are expressing concern due to vaccine experiments on black Americans in the past
Published: Feb. 17, 2021 at 5:14 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - A Roanoke task force is making efforts to address health inequity when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine.

The city is targeting outreach to three groups: African Americans, Latinos, and people living in poverty. The goal is to help people get vaccinated by providing information, overcoming language barriers, and handling logistics like transportation or child care.

In the WDBJ7 series “Shot Clock,” we are taking a closer look at the challenges that getting the COVID-19 vaccine poses in each of these communities, as the race continues to get vaccine shots to those who need it most.

The Pastor of a church that has served Black Roanokers for more than a century says the biggest deterrent he’s seeing is distrust.

On a typical Sunday, the rafters would reverberate at High Street Baptist Church. It has been a pillar in Roanoke’s African American community since 1884. Now with the pandemic, Pastor Serenus Churn looks out on empty pews. His roadmap to normalcy is clear.

“Along with wearing your mask, you need to be vaccinated,” Rev. Churn said.

However, he says that is not the clear path to many in his congregation.

“There are others who just don’t trust the vaccine. Not because of the science, but because of history in the African American community,” he said.

The history he is referencing is the experimental use of medicine on Black Americans, particularly the Tuskegee Experiment.

“That was was supposed to be a 6-month experiment that lasted 40 years. Over 600 men, African American men were used,” Rev. Churn said.

The experiment’s goal was to observe untreated syphilis, and it was conducted without patients’ informed consent.

“That has given a very sour taste in the African American community. And they remember that, and they’re saying, well, I don’t want to be experimented on,” Rev. Churn said.

The mistrust in medicine is laid out in pamphlets that are now circulating around Roanoke. One headline on the pamphlet reads, “U.S. health care practices have historically abused and killed people of color.”

Roanoke city officials denounce the pamphlets as spreading false information, as does Rev. Churn.

“This is a different situation. This is not the experiment,” he said.

Data from the Virginia Department of Health show of the more than 1 million vaccine doses administered, 61 percent have gone to white Virginians. Only 10 percent of the shots have gone to Black Virginians, even though they account for 20 percent of the state population.

In its 137-year history, High Street Baptist Church has provided education, recreation, and other resources to the local African American community. Roanoke’s first black Mayor, Noel C. Taylor, was even a member.

Now the church is offering a different kind of service to black residents of Roanoke, converting into a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday.

It is a resource Rev. Churn hopes the community utilizes as he shares his message of urgency.

“There are individuals saying. ‘I’ll wait and see how the first group does with the vaccination,’” Rev. Churn said. “That’s very dangerous. When you get this virus, it is very deadly. No one really has the time to wait and see.”

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