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Black, Brown communities should get first dibs on coronavirus vaccine, minority leaders say

“We’re asking and demanding that we have a sense of trust by allowing us to be considered to be first when it comes to distribution,” said Pastor John Harrell, of Proviso Baptist Church in Maywood.

Pastor John Harrell, of Proviso Baptist Church in Maywood, and other African American and community leaders called on Congress to prioritize the distribution of any coronavirus vaccines to those communities.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

A group of minority leaders gathered Sunday to urge members of Congress and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to prioritize the distribution of any coronavirus vaccine to Black and Brown communities hit hard by the pandemic.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we’re asking and demanding that we have a sense of trust by allowing us to be considered to be first when it comes to distribution,” Pastor John Harrell, of Proviso Baptist Church in Maywood, told reporters gathered outside the JLM Abundant Life Community Center on the Near West Side.

The speakers, who included state Rep. La Shawn Ford, acknowledged that any vaccine would first be doled out to other high-risk groups, like health care professionals, essential workers, those at a higher risk of infection and the elderly. On Tuesday, a group of experts convened by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control will vote on who to vaccinate first.

The push for priority access comes a day after NBC Chicago reported the first shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-19 touched down at O’Hare international Airport. Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to grant emergency approval to that shot or another promising vaccine candidate manufactured by Moderna.

Meanwhile, many in the African American and Latino communities remain wary of inoculation and the medical establishment at large. Ford, a Chicago Democrat, traced the mistrust of medical experiments back to the U.S. government’s Tuskegee syphilis research, which withheld treatment of poor Black men over a 40-year period.

“That goes deep,” noted Ford. “And when you think about how the government has failed … the Black and Brown communities, that’s the trust that Black people struggle with.”

A recent study commissioned by the COVID Collaborative, a coalition of health care experts and former government officials, found that just 48% of Black respondents said they would probably or definitely take a free vaccine, compared to 66% of Latino respondents. Meanwhile, large academic hospitals in Chicago have had a tough time recruiting minority volunteers to test vaccines, namely members of the Black community.

Pressed on that troubling fact, Ford pushed back and asked whether any of the few dozen attendees were asked to participate. Not a single hand darted up.

“That’s another example of the system blaming Black people for not participating in something that they were never really truly invited to,” Ford said.

He and other community leaders said building confidence in the vaccine and the distribution process is vital. Employing outreach workers tied to their communities will help instill in residents “that the vaccine is safe” and ensure “they understand the side effects,” said Ford.

While he called on the governor “to convene a commission to make sure that this is done right,” a Prtizker spokeswoman noted that the administration’s vaccine distribution plan already “has an equity lens on it that prioritizes communities hardest hit by the virus.”

“We have to make sure that people trust that the vaccine will work and we do everything that we can to bring an understanding to our community about how important it is to take the vaccine and to be able to trust it,” Ford added.