Some U.S. Black pastors, key players in COVID education, are hesitating to push vaccine

By Gabriella Borter and Makini Brice
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a major health organization A.R. Bernard, the black head of a mega-church in Brooklyn, was a member of a committee designed to promote the adoption of COVID-19 vaccines in color communities in New York City.
Bernard, who heads the Christian Cultural Center, the city's largest church, turned down the offer because he feared some members of his ward might see his participation as "an alliance with the system" to use African American guinea pigs "for vaccines that developed in record time.
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Like most of the dozen black religious leaders polled by Reuters, Bernard has yet to show public support for a vaccination he believes he doesn't know enough about and is risking compromising his community's trust.
"We are concerned that it will be tested on people of color," said Bernard, referring to people who would receive the vaccine early on in its public launch. Blacks made up about 10% of the volunteers in the vaccination trial, compared with 13.4% of the US population.
The pastor was hospitalized with the virus in March and said he would "wait and see" for more information about the side effects of the vaccine.
The reluctance to recommend vaccination is noteworthy as black pastors have played a key role in educating their communities about the risks of COVID-19 to African Americans, who are 2.8 times more likely to die from it than white Americans, according to U.S. centers Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Public health officials hope black leaders and other black role models will help alleviate strong skepticism among African Americans about the safety of the vaccine, which is being distributed across the country. The shots are crucial in ending a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans to date, health experts say.
According to a Reuters / Ipsos poll this month, only 49% of black Americans would be interested in taking it compared to 63% of white Americans. The poll found that blacks and whites alike are being put off by the speed of development of the COVID vaccine and the Trump administration's messed up coronavirus response. The black pastors also pointed to the deep distrust of the members of their congregations towards the medical facility.
"We're dealing with the by-product of ... generations of suspicion, suspicion, and fear about how medical systems work," said Edwin Sanders, director of the Metropolitan International Church in Nashville, Tennessee, who was involved with educating about it public health since HIV / AIDS in the 1980s.
The suspicion stems from decades of unequal access and treatment, medical underrepresentation in clinical trials, and a record that they were used as ignorant test subjects, such as in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study that lasted through 1972 that infected black men for syphilis treatment refused without her knowledge.
Pastors said this story raised fears that the COVID-19 vaccine may not work in black Americans or that they will be given a different shot than the rest of society.
"I can't tell my people in good faith to accept this wholesale trade, but I'm also not trying to support any kind of baseless conspiracy theories. It's a tightrope walk to take here," said Earle Fisher, pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, a ward of approximately 50 people in Memphis, Tennessee.
Of the dozen black church leaders interviewed, all said they believed the vaccine was necessary to end the crisis, but only one was willing to provide direct support at the time.
Most said they wanted more information so they could educate their community members about how the vaccine works in the body, where to get it, and possible side effects.
"As a pastor and a health care worker, I can see why people should take it because of the devastation I've seen. But I also understand why the African American community doesn't trust them because we've been treated that way in the past," said Reginald Belton of the First Baptist Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, who also does pastoral care at a hospital.
Belton said he planned to take the vaccine and would like to provide more information to his members about it, but he didn't say he would support him.
The importance of black religious leaders in promoting the vaccine was underscored in a CDC report earlier this month that found health officials succeeded in working with African American churches to educate medically underserved communities.
Black churches have long played a vital role in the social welfare of black Americans, perhaps best known during the civil rights movement.
Pastors polled by Reuters said local government and other officials need to build trust with their faith communities in order to increase vaccine acceptance among black Americans.
Elijah Hankerson III, director of the Life Center International of the Church of God in Christ in St. Louis, Missouri, said the results of clinical studies showing the Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are greater than 90% effective not enough to encourage him to get a vaccine.
But if St. Louis officials vouch for the vaccine and his legal team and church health unit say it's okay, Hankerson said he would promote it on his webcasts and social media, which together reach an audience of about 70,000.
"Data is one thing," said Hankerson, who lost his uncle and two colleagues to the virus. "If there are people we trust, who can vouch for it and say, 'Hey, this is for the good of the people, bring this out,' then we wouldn't mind doing that."
The National Medical Association, an organization of black health care providers, attempted to give these Americans that assurance on Monday when it announced support for the US government's emergency approval of Pfizer and Moderna admissions after an independent review of clinical trial data.
Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, a coalition that seeks to reduce health disparities, said he expected the black churches to come on board at some point to mobilize to get people vaccinated.
Some religious leaders, despite their own hesitation, encourage the vaccine because they see little alternative.
Pastor George Waddles of the Second Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a congregation of about 400 people, previously doubted vaccines. He got his first flu shot in 2019 because he had previously believed it could make him sick.
But seeing the suffering caused by COVID-19 has motivated him to encourage his community members to take a leap of faith and get vaccinated.
"We have three options," recalled Waddles of a virtual call to prayer earlier this month. "Inoculation, Isolation, or Decimation."
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Makini Brice in Washington, editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)

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