'Earned Distrust,' Information Overflow: Why People of Color Are Hesitant About Vaccines

As federal, state and local officials attempt to address vaccine hesitancy among communities of color in the U.S, experts say there's a multitude of reasons why vaccine hesitancy has been higher among people of color.

In an interview with Newsweek, Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies [FPWA], said top reasons include distrust in the government, information overload and endurance of the pandemic.

FPWA is a New York-based, anti-poverty policy and advocacy organization that has worked with the state to help equip Black communities with outreach and educational materials on the efficiency and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

"For many, it is one of distrust—well-documented, well-earned distrust on the part of government toward communities of color," Jones Austin said Tuesday. "The lack of medical and mental health treatment through the years, or inferior treatment—like treating Blacks not as humans but medical bodies—is a lot of reason to distrust."

Since the early days of the nation's vaccine rollout, many have warned that a tumultuous history of medical malpractice among communities of color would hinder the Biden administration's efforts to get the U.S. to herd immunity.

Distrust, coupled with the overload of information that people have been bombarded with over the course of the pandemic, has resulted in a lack of confidence among an already-skeptical group of people, Jones Austin explains.

"Maybe some people thought it was being transparent, but we were giving people more information than they'd ever had before," she said. "When we were told that it took 14 months on average to create a vaccine, I never knew that, you never knew that. And so now, all of a sudden, some people are like, 'wait a minute, how did you create it so soon, so quickly?'"

Vaccine Hesitancy People of Color Vaccination Rate
In an interview with Newsweek, Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies [FPWA], said top reasons for vaccine hesitancy among communities of color include distrust in the government, information overload and endurance of the pandemic. A baseball fan gets a COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the Chicago White Sox game against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 8 in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty

Jones Austin noted that hesitancy may be particularly high among people who feel that if they could survive previous waves of the coronavirus, they're just as prepared to face the recent surge of the Delta variant.

"There's a contingent of people who feel like they have weathered the storm, that they got through the worst of it without having to take a vaccine that they have reason to be skeptical about," she said. "What is different here is that yeah, maybe you did get through the worst of it back in the summer of last year, but now we have a variant that is all the more contagious.

"You may have gotten through the first storm, but it doesn't mean you're going to get through the next."

For people who have walked around for the last 16 months as a member of a community that has been disproportionally affected by the virus and have prevented infection by washing their hands, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, it may seem like there are plenty of other ways to mitigate spread that don't involve vaccines.

Jones Austin said it is this mentality that outreach efforts need to focus on shifting away from, convincing people to move away from individual fears and to greater societal and community benefit.

"Let's look at the people who've been vaccinated and what their lives are like these days. Let's talk about it from a positive vantage point, what are we striving toward and what's our individual and collective responsibility," she said.

People of Color Vaccine Hesitancy Distrust Information
"You may have gotten through the first storm, but it doesn't mean you're going to get through the next," Jones Austin warns unvaccinated people who have not gotten sick with COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. A woman gets a COVID-19 vaccine on June 5 in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty

People of color have been statistically shown to be disproportionately affected by the fallout of the pandemic, not only in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but also by unemployment, evictions and other socioeconomic impacts.

"Lower-income people in communities of color who have already been hard-hit cannot afford to be hard hit again," Jones Austin told Newsweek. "It's time to take precautions that, at this junction, is proving to be truly effective."

She continued, "If we don't, we may just find ourselves once again, infected, hospitalized, dying disproportionately—our loved ones the same—unemployed, our children not back in school. Just setting, not only our cities, our states, our nation but ourselves, up for a never-ending, devastating experience with long-term effects."

While many vaccine-hesitant individuals may share the same fears, experts stress that officials cannot approach skepticism around vaccines by thinking there is a one-size-fits-all reasoning behind not wanting to get the jab.

"We have to be very careful about not automatically assuming the reasons why they're not taking the vaccine," Jones Austin said.

Although she understands the various concerns individuals may have, Jones Austin is even more concerned by the low vaccination rates among people of color, especially now that the Delta variant is surging from state to state and once again overwhelming the nation's healthcare systems.

"They have reason to be concerned, but I want them to be all the more concerned about what can happen if they don't become vaccinated," she said. "The risks of becoming infected are far greater than any risk that we have seen both documented and in the everyday experience of people who are vaccinated. Let's not take risks we don't need to."

On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Coumo announced the state would allocate $15 million to FPWA—along with the Hispanic Federation, the New York Immigration Coalition and the Asian American Federation—to help promote vaccinations in communities that were hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What we're aiming to do is work with community-based organizations, both secular and faith-based organizations, that have a direct connect with individuals and families working in the community," Jones Austin said.

"Our aim is to essentially have credible-messenger conversations, to meet people where they're at, to find out what is preventing them from engaging from taking up the vaccine and then doing our best to address the unanswered questions, to allay those fears and concerns and to make accessing the vaccine as easy as possible," she added.