Community Conversation Reveals Continued Hesitancy about COVID-19 Vaccines

By Joshua Glenn

On Saturday, August 14, Denver Urban Spectrum’s Community Conversations featured a frank discussion about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. The event was hosted by the Struggle of Love Foundation in Montbello, a nonprofit created to support underprivileged youth and families with education, food and other resources.

The conversations were led by DUS Managing Editor Alfonzo Porter and a panel of medical doctors: Dr. Terri Richardson, an internist and vice chair of the Colorado Black Healthcare Collaborative; Dr. Lane Rolling, a nationally acclaimed infectious disease specialist and director of the Tropical Pathology and Infectious Disease Association; and Dr. Johnny Johnson, an obstetrician, gynecologist and president of the Mile High Medical Association. They answered questions and discussed the safety and efficacy of the vaccines for Black people.

They were joined by a group of citizen panelists comprised of community leaders and parents who continued to challenge the experts to convince them to change their minds about the vaccine. Some members shared that they had not been vaccinated and had no plans to do so.

Citing misinformation and a constant change in messaging from national agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes for Health, and the media, citizens expressed extreme skepticism about whether the vaccine is really needed.

Richardson implored the audience to do everything possible to protect their health and that of their families and community members.

“The Delta variant of the coronavirus is the largest threat to public health since the start of the pandemic last March,” she said. “This strain poses an even larger threat to unvaccinated individuals. The overwhelming majority of those dying from COVID are the unvaccinated.”

Nevertheless, parent Essence Brown remained doubtful saying her family will not receive the vaccine.

“I have four children and I have no plans to get the vaccine myself or to have them vaccinated,” Brown told the physicians. “There is just too much misinformation circulating, with one expert saying one thing and another saying something else. We do, however, wear masks.”

The conflicting messages from media, particularly on the internet, has caused many Americans to remain distrustful with 14% of the overall population saying that they will definitely not get the vaccine and another 10% saying that they will wait and see, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In an attempt to play the racial blame game, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick claimed that the “biggest group in most states are African Americans who have not been vaccinated.” He went on to assert that since more than 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats. Therefore, African Americans are causing the surge in COVID cases.

The fact is that 86% of Democrats have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The total of Black citizens who have taken at least one dose stands at 65%, ahead of white Evangelical Christians at 60% and rural residents at 57%, while 54% of Republicans have taken a shot, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.       

Some in the audience at Struggle of Love were concerned about the racial make-up of the initial clinical trials, suggesting that most of the trial participants were white. Therefore, evidence that the vaccine’s effectiveness for African Americans would remain uncertain.         

“The lack of representation of people of color in the clinical trials for vaccines was a primary source of hesitancy amongst community members,” said community resident Andrea Mosby.

The group of physicians disagreed about whether African Americans were, in fact, a significant part of the clinical trials. However, they’re primary message to the community was to follow the science.

“If you understand the science, you can’t go wrong,” according to Rolling.

It was Rolling who insisted last year that there was growing evidence that low levels of neutralizing antibodies indicate vulnerability to COVID-19. At the time, he received significant criticism for this assertion. Yet today, Rolling’s contention is being affirmed by the medical establishment who now suggest booster shots may be required as a result of low antibody levels in the blood.

“You don’t have long-term antibodies,” Rolling insisted in a similar discussion last year. “Antibodies developed after receiving a shot will last only about 80 days. As the virus mutates into more sophisticated strains, the efficacy of the initial vaccines will decrease.”

Johnson added that booster shots may become an annual requirement for this virus.

“The booster shots may well become commonplace to ward off the stronger variants,” he said. “You will be getting a booster, just like a flu shot, every single year.”

With the Delta variant surging through the nation, government officials have approved booster shots for the most vulnerable. The booster is intended to further strengthen the immune system against stronger variants of the original Alpha strain.

According to Rolling, antibody levels will vary depending on which brand you take. “While Pfizer produces an antibody level of 250-500, the Covaxx vaccine (which is not available in the U.S.) creates 32,000. Getting vaccinated creates antibodies, a protein in the blood that attacks antigens, or viruses, in this case.”

Parents in the room expressed concern about the beginning of the school year and the safety of their children. Johnson also conveyed concern about children and in-person learning environments.

“I think that 12 and under is really concerning, even as a doctor and a parent,” he said. “The best way for us to protect our children is to protect ourselves. We as a community must remain mindful that vaccinating the population creates herd immunity, a powerful way to fight the virus that continues to spread throughout the population.”

The general consensus throughout the conversation was that we as a community must do our part to stay healthy and conscious of others. The doctors agreed that we should eat healthy foods, wash our hands, wear a mask, and maintain positivity as we continue to navigate through this pandemic.

Immediately following the discussion, a vaccination clinic was held in the parking lot. Even with uncertainty about the vaccine hanging in the air, a couple participants in the conversation joined the line of people who had come just to receive the vaccine. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment staff reported that 44 people got vaccinated at the event.