Community members listening to a presentation
Credit: Adobe Stock Images

At the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black community lagged behind whites in vaccination rates. Media outlets based their speculations on the fears of historically health-related injustices such as the Tuskegee Syphilis study.

American medical institutions have subjected Black people to exploitation, abuse and experimentation, but Research has shown over time that vaccine hesitancy and distrust in the U.S. healthcare system is centered more on Blacks’ unsatisfactory healthcare experiences than past wrongdoings.

That is why the University of Houston’s HEALTH Research Initiative, the Houston Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborated to spearhead the research initiative called Mitigating the Effects of Systemic Racism and Information During SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic.

The initiative explores key challenges in the healthcare system that marginalized communities face. So far, two pilot forums have been hosted, and a total of nine forums are slated to engage with local underrepresented communities about COVID-19 vaccine beliefs and health challenges they want to navigate.

The Defender spoke with HEALTH Research Institute’s Program Director Shante Fossie about what the community can expect from the upcoming community health action chats.

Defender: Tell us about the work you all are doing at HEALTH Research Initiative.

Fossie: Dr. (Ezemenari) Obasi [the founder and executive director of HEALTH Research Initiative] and other investigators on the project really wanted to understand the lived experiences of navigating healthcare and COVID-19 in certain communities within the Greater Houston area. A lot of us still say that we are done with the pandemic, but COVID-19 is still here. We came up with strategies to make sure that we’re able to reduce those disparities. It’s really about creating a community-based initiative where we’re out in the community learning and providing resources to folks. Then we asks community members what changes they would want to see.

Defender: From your research, what have you seen to be the reasons why many marginalize communities are hesitant about the vaccines?

Fossie: There is a lot of misinformation within certain communities about COVID-19. For instance, people were nervous just to get the vaccine. People asked how the vaccine was developed so fast, and what was in it. We try to debunk any misinformation because those little things can turn into societal trauma and it creates a society of fear. We also take our time to understand where they are coming from with their personal experiences.

yellow, black and green event flyer with qr code
Flyer of upcoming event Credit: Courtesy of HEALTH Research Institute

Defender: Do you believe that historical wrongdoings of the past aren’t enough reason explain the vaccines hesitancy but rather the current dissatisfaction with healthcare experiences in the system?

Fossie: Honestly, community members that I’ve interacted with talk about both. That is one of the most disheartening parts of our history. For instance, in the Latinx community, they’ve talked about the fact that there are language barriers. The Vietnamese and Chinese communities that we engage with express the same. Some indigenous groups that we’ve talked to … sometimes they are not deemed as being who they are, and doctors misrepresent them. Understanding cultural competencies are overlooked.

Defender: What concerns have you learned from the community from previous forums?

Fossie: Our pilot forums are to help us get our feet wet. We try to figure out what is going on and mitigate any set up problems. Now we’re able to have those focus on things that I had mentioned previously, but we’ll have the resources with actual organizations at the forum. At the April 17 forum, we will have Change Happens, where they will have a mobile unit to distribute information regarding HIV prevention, we will have Lone Star Circle Care, where they will provide behavioral and financial resources. The community has responded and they are happy about it. We are also giving out gift cards encourage everyone to come out and to let them know that their voice matters.

Defender: Any other updates for our audience?

Fossie: Yes, our next set of forums are coming up. We have one on June 3 at the Chinese Community Center, and then we are also collaborating with SER Jobs for Progress and we will have three forums with them and that will be April 27, May 25, and June 22.

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Laura OnyenehoEducation Reporter

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...