Providing equitable access to the Black community during COVID-19

Though the vaccine may be rolling out throughout the United States, not all communities face the same equity and access. While Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are about four times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that of those who have received the first dose of the vaccine, only 5.4% are Black people – whereas 60% of those individuals are white.
Bearing in mind a recent poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, this study found that 35% of Black Americans have cited they do not plan on getting the vaccine for fears of safety and mistrust in the health care community. Ada firefighter Rob McCarty understands these apprehensions. 
“Historically, Black people were utilized as guinea pigs in the medical community,” McCarty says. “Some were given placebos, whereas some were given a type of drug that would have an adverse effect on their health. Subsequently, several of them died.”
Though McCarty has received both vaccination shots already, he acknowledges he did have some similar concerns at first. In fact, when he went in for his first shot, he was surprised to find three syringes laid out on the counter.
“I was thinking, ‘Why are there three? I’m just getting one injection.’ While the woman who was working told me, they aren’t all for me, I still couldn’t help but feel apprehensive,” McCarty says. “Even if they wanted the syringes to become room temperature, why couldn’t they keep those elements behind the scenes so those feeling uneasy wouldn’t have any extra reasons to worry?”

Courtesy of the Kent County Health Department

Despite the historical mistrust in the health care system some people may be feeling, McCarty knew that those instances of being treated as guinea pigs are not as prevalent in 2021 and trusts that the medical community wants everyone to remain safe. “When I was getting an injection, I looked at it as doing it for the better good,” McCarty says. “Not all practices are bad. Some people may think so, but that’s not always the case. We must trust our medical providers because they are out there to provide a service to help us all get better, regardless of your race, creed or beliefs. Therefore, if I can be an example to others and look out for my community, I’m going to do it.”
Working as a firefighter, McCarty has seen firsthand the effect COVID-19 can have on members of the community. But luckily, by taking every precaution to protect themselves and others with the proper PPE measures, he has been able to keep his family and loved ones safe.
However, even before this pandemic surfaced, McCarty says not all communities have the same level of equitable access to proper medical providers. “Living in Ada, I see far more medical facilitates per square mile than in certain areas of Grand Rapids,” McCarty says. “Of course, you have the Medical Mile, but in some areas that are predominantly occupied by the Black and Hispanic communities, there are none. Why are there medical facilities in some [communities] and not others? It’s not equal and it’s not fair. Unfortunately, it’s not an even playing field, but I hope by questioning why some communities are being treated and some are not, people will become more aware of the disparity.”
When it comes to testing for COVID-19, McCarty says there are additional barriers that members of our community must face, such as not having access to transportation to get to a facility and not having insurance. “The medical community can’t sit around and wait for people to come to them because there are quite a few people out there who can’t come and those, in turn, will unfortunately become the forgotten few,” McCarty says.
Because of this, McCarty raises the idea of having mobile testing facilities. That way, the neighborhoods who may have more barriers to getting the answers they need can do so in a way that is fair and accessible. “If certain communities can’t afford to gain entry to these opportunities, let’s find a way to level the playing field,” McCarty says.

While the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) offers free COVID-19 testing in centers across Grand Rapids, Caledonia, Rockford, and Ionia, Steve Kelso, KCHD’s marketing and communications manager, says mobile testing is not currently offered due to the limited supply of vaccines at this time, but there are plans for mobile vaccine clinics eventually.
The key difference between mobile testing and feeling taken advantage of like a guinea pig, McCarty says, lies in the advertising. Think about the Walgreens flu shots. You see those advertisements everywhere. According to McCarty, the same approach needs to be taken with COVID-19.
“To be more accessible and interactive in the community, you need groups and representatives who will advertise throughout the community that this testing or these shots will be happening on a particular day,” McCarty says. “That way, it won’t feel like a guinea pig situation because you would be keeping the community informed of when, where, why, and how this is for their benefit. Then, it would be left to the individual to decide if they want to come.”

Megan Sarnacki is a freelance writer and editor.
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