BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - As COVID-19 spreads throughout Mississippi, the Black community still continues to see staggering numbers of fatalities. However, the number of vaccinations seems to stay at a relatively low rate of only 15%, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.
Many might ask why? Well the answer is complex, but with help from a health expert and members of the community, the question is being answered.
Dr. Belinda Alexander, a Black Internal Medicine Specialist, who works at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport believes that one of the reasons for the low vaccination rate is caused by the lack of accessibility.
“On the Coast, is it accessible to get that vaccine in that area?” said Alexander. ”Is it easy to walk up to a clinic or walk to a health department to get vaccinated today? The answer is no, you have to be online or use the telephone, and what percentage of African Americans on the Coast have those capabilities and patience who are 75 and older?”
Dr. Alexander also thinks the lack of vaccination rates correlates to a lack of faith in government.
“The mistrust of our system,” said Dr. Alexander. “The mistrust that African Americans may have about medicine and the government. I’m not on any pharmaceutical payroll, and I don’t get any kickback. I’m not getting paid for anything. There’s no financial gain. It’s more so that we’re concerned about the well-being of the community. African Americans die two-times more than white Americans when you look nationwide.”
Someone that could attest to that perspective is Ocean Springs resident Alicia Tolliver. She said the primary reason why the Black community is apprehensive about taking the vaccine might be caused by the past wrong-doings by the government with people of color.
“Easily said for me, it’s our history,” said Tolliver. “Our government has done so much wrong by people of color. It’s from the Tuskegee experiment and HIV, all these things to wrong us. It’s undeniable, we know this to be true, it’s a fact and it’s written.”
Tolliver speaks of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study that began in 1932. It’s a case that involved the government infecting over 700 Black men and women with syphilis without their knowledge or consent. The purpose of the study was to determine whether penicillin could prevent syphilis. However, none of those people were given penicillin, they were given a placebo. As a result, health providers watched hundreds of people develop severe health issues and die, all for an experiment.
Tolliver said even if she was a millionaire, she still wouldn’t take the vaccine.
“I’m not getting it unless it’s mandated,” said Tolliver. “My mom, my sister, and my whole family ran down there and got the vaccine. I’m not getting it because it was too soon. I don’t understand why they haven’t created vaccines for other diseases that’ve been killing everybody in the Black community for years.”
Even though she’s not taking the vaccine, Tolliver said she isn’t “anti-vaccine’ but she believes there are other preventative methods.
“If it’s an option to say yes or no, I’m going to say no because I know that our body is made to protect,” said Tolliver. “And if we teach our kids to eat right, exercise and enjoy life, it takes away from any disease. Our ancestors didn’t have vaccines, and they used herbs and they live a lot longer than we do.”
On Jan. 23rd, MSDH reported that 179,792 Mississippians have been vaccinated, but African Americans only make up 21,410 of those vaccinations.
Gulfport resident Felice Kelly-Gillum said at first she was reluctant to take the vaccine, but decided that the side-effects of not taking the vaccine were greater than the side-effects of taking it. She, her husband and parents all took the vaccine.
“I started thinking about how I was not going to get it versus the pros of getting it. Then I realized that whatever side effects that the vaccine did have, it was not going to be worse than the side-effects if I likely got COVID with my pre-existing conditions,” said Gillum. “It was not going to be worse than leaving my children here without a mother, and my husband here without a wife, so I decided to get it just to be safe and just continue to live my best life.”
Contrary to popular belief, Gillum said she hasn’t experienced any bizarre side-effects that some people are expecting. The only side-effect she experienced was a sore arm after taking the shot.
“I had the first dose, the experience was fine,” said Gillum. ”It did not hurt when I got the shot, it was almost like a flu shot. The night of the shot, my arm was a little sore and even a few days later my arm is still sore.”
Though Gillum has taken the vaccine, she understands why the vaccination rate is so low in the Black community.
“I think that with this(vaccine) because it’s something new, and not on the scene for a long time, I think that’s one of the reasons why our community has a distrust,” said Gillum. “And then it comes at a time in our nation’s history where we’re so afraid to trust anyway, we’ve been hurt so much, the whole COVID could have not come at a worse time.”
Nevertheless, Gillum believes the outcome can be different even though the vaccine was rushed. She says if we change the perspective, it can break barriers.
“We’re still using the same brains, and same powerful minds to put the vaccines together. Not only that, it’s the same people we trust with our drugs, and our medication,” said Gillum. “Most of us will take those without even looking at the side-effects. I think if we get a better and real perspective on that, then we’ll start to see some of those barriers break down.”
Dr. Alexander wanted to put to rest any myths that have been floating around about the vaccination process.
“Some people in my community think that if you get the vaccine, that they put the chip in your arm. That’s not true, it’s not a chip,” said Dr. Alexander. “It’s a vaccine, it’s a different way of administering this particular drug in regards to the COVID-19.”
Due to the unknown, she thinks people might be scared of the process but she doesn’t want fear to interfere with life.
“We have to put that fear to the side,” said Alexander. “I also want to state that the vaccine does not give you the disease. The vaccine itself is not live, it’s not a live organism. You will not get the disease, what you may experience is the side-effect of your body responding and building it’s immune system.”
Dr. Alexander gave a simplified explanation as to what exactly the vaccine does to the body, and its immune system.
“If you have a cellphone, and someone calls you, you can either deny it or block it,” said Dr. Alexander. “So what the vaccine actually does is it identifies a number and it starts to block that number so it doesn’t grow or ill the person.”
She also wanted to clear up the myth that the vaccine alters DNA. She said it has nothing to do with DNA but Messenger RNA, which is a biological code the body needs to read in-order to create antibodies and combat viruses.
“It’s also like the quarterback telling the running back to attack the other opponent so it doesn’t score,” said Alexander.
And if a facility is asking you to pay for the vaccine, Alexander said run for the hills.
“You don’t have to have insurance at all, and if you go to a facility that charges, go and report it to the authorities,” said Alexander. “It’s illegal to charge for the vaccine for those that have symptoms of COVID and if you don’t have insurance, you’re not going to be charged, go to the health clinic.”
If you want to find a Black physician, or doctor that you can trust, click this link to find a doctor near you. Also, to read more about how and where to schedule an appointment once those vaccines are available, click here.
To make an appointment, read the instructions and follow the steps closely on covidvaccine.umc.edu.