A Black Jamaican-born woman became the first person in the nation to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, flickering emotions of pride and skepticism against the backdrop of the federal government’s rollout of vaccines against a virus that’s killed over 300,000 Americans.
Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, told Washington Post reporters shortly after receiving her shot that it was important for her as a Black woman to get the vaccine. She says she wanted to send a message to marginalized groups about trusting science despite the country’s checkered past of using enslaved Black women for medical advancement and deceiving poor Black men about medical care.
“Unfortunately, due to history, my population —minorities, people that look like me — are hesitant to take vaccines,” she said.
Actress Kerry Washington thanked Lindsay in a tweet, while some said the critical care nurse made their week.
While Lindsay embodied bravery for many, for others, she conjured ghosts of the nation’s not-too-distant past.
The mere sight of Lindsay being injected won’t erase the valid fear and doubt that many Black people have, said Melissa Creary, assistant professor of health management and policy at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
“I know people who have shown [the video of Lindsay] to their children. It is tremendously important,” she said. “But, I think the histories of oppression are long. The memories of oppression linger. It’s going to take more than just this instance for us to have an immediate reaction that isn’t skeptical.”
Creary says she has been thinking about how vaccination talks have roused wartime comparisons among politicians including New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who said the vaccine will be the weapon to end the war against the virus. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said distribution of the vaccines is “going-to-war level of complexity” in a joint news conference.
The most dispensable people in wars are usually those on the front lines, Creary said.
At least 1,500 health-care workers have died of the coronavirus after working on the front lines, the majority of whom have been people of color, according to a new report from the Guardian and Kaiser Health News.
“It’s huge pressure on the shoulders of Black women to usher us into a space where we’re supposed to feel if we put a check on it, it’s okay,” Creary said.
Lindsay herself has faced personal loss because of the coronavirus, losing an aunt and uncle. Black, Latino and Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely to die of the coronavirus compared with White people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those grim numbers haven’t moved the needle much for vaccine willingness, according to an early December report from Pew Research Center. Forty-two percent of Black Americans are inclined to take a vaccine compared with 63 percent of Hispanic Americans and 61 percent of White Americans. Black Americans are also less likely to trust scientists and medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, the report found.
Conversations around getting vaccinated have to evolve to confront the hesitance, says Vickie Mays, director of the University of California at Los Angeles’s center studying minority health disparities.
The compelling images of Lindsay don’t signify investment in the target demographic or ensure that people will have access to care after they receive the vaccine, she said.
“We need the federal government to set up data systems that allows us to look very specifically at reports and reactions by Black Americans who take this shot,” she said.
Last week, the CDC outlined monitoring systems for people who take the coronavirus vaccine that include reporting tools for adverse effects.
Mays said she sees hope in the appointment of multiple people of color to President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming Cabinet. It could make way for real change for those who have been historically discounted, she said.
“When they say ‘build back better,’” she said, “that nurse is the beginning of build back better for Black Americans.”