Researchers aim ease COVID-19 vaccine concerns by building trust within communities of color

With distribution of the coronavirus vaccine underway, researchers from the University of South Florida Taneja College of Pharmacy are working to educate communities of color about COVID-19 and the benefits of inoculation.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit minority groups the hardest, particularly African Americans. According to the Florida Department of Health, Black adults have contracted the virus at a rate 1.5 times higher than that of white adults. Coupled with a historical mistrust from African American communities toward clinical research, experts say there is concern that these disparities could increase.

To combat skepticism and misinformation, the USF Health program, Workgroup Enhancing Community Advocacy and Research Engagement (WE-CARE), has joined forces with the Tampa-based organization ReachUP, Inc. to share facts about COVID-19 and the newly developed vaccine. Webinars hosted by Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the Taneja College of Pharmacy, and Dr. Angela Hill, associate dean of clinical affairs, are aimed at providing community leaders with trustworthy resources and the tools they need to relay important health-related information to larger groups.

The program began by focusing on the leaders of faith-based organizations who could later advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine to their congregations across Tampa Bay and beyond.

“Because of the importance and respect that clergy command in African American and Latino communities, that was really a group we wanted to build an authentic relationship with early on,” Sneed said.


Kevin Sneed Twitter Post after first dose of COVID-19 Vaccine

To date, WE-CARE has hosted more than 30 webinars around the coronavirus pandemic and has expanded its audience to include leaders of community boards, civic and social groups, as well as alumni of fraternities and sororities, among other organizations.

“Our mechanism of reaching a wider audience through who we believe are the gatekeepers of the community has really made a difference in our ability to share this information,” Hill said.

Each meeting begins with a 25 minutes presentation about COVID-19 and the process that was put in place to develop the recently-distributed vaccine. Sneed and Hill then open the floor to any questions attendees may have.

“The question and answer part of these sessions has really been the crown jewel of our communication with the community. It’s allowed everyone to feel valued because we take the time to listen to their concerns and address each one of them individually,” Sneed said.

Sneed and Hill explain that the success of these webinars hinges on being transparent and honest, as well as ensuring participants that the COVID-19 vaccine was not developed “overnight.”

“For an eight-year period we’ve been building up to the technology that would allow for the rapid deployment of a vaccine should a new pandemic come along, which is exactly what happened,” Sneed said. “I think a detectable comfort level comes with that knowledge and the understanding that this is not brand new. The process has been under testing for a while now.”

Sneed is not just advocating for others to get the COVID-19 vaccine. On December 16th, just two days after the first dose was administered in the U.S., Sneed posted a photo to his Twitter account showing that he had received the shot as well.

Although WE-CARE is focusing its efforts on the coronavirus pandemic, the program began back in 2017 with the goal of improving health outcomes among minority populations by increasing minority enrollment and participation in clinical research.

Hiram Green, community engagement director for USF Health, says the program was developed in response to the mistrust from African American communities towards clinical research due to historical events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, an unethical experiment that allowed hundreds of African American men with syphilis to go untreated in order to study the effects of the disease. WE-CARE aims to empower underrepresented populations, provide oversight, protection, and advocacy for participants involved in research, and rebuild trust between clinical institutions and communities of color.

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