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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker appears at a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast

State Aims To Alleviate Skepticism Of The COVID-19 Vaccine In Black Communities

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration is bracing for widespread reluctance in communities of color toward getting vaccinated for COVID-19 as the state awaits its first shipment of vaccine as early as this weekend.

Both the governor and his public health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, told reporters Tuesday that they are worried Black Illinoisans, especially, may be resistant toward the public-health benefits of getting vaccinated for the virus as soon as possible.

“There’s a lot of work to be done there, and there’s very valid reasons why that skepticism exists. Public health has not always done right by communities of color,” Ezike said, pointing to the atrocities of the federal Tuskegee syphilis experiments between the 1930s and 1970s.

In attempting to study the effects of the sexually transmitted disease, the government enrolled a group of 600 Black men without fully informing them about the nature of the study and withheld treatments that could have cured their illnesses.

“That’s just one example. There are many examples where government has done wrong by Black people, specifically,” she said.

Ezike said she intends to work with the Chicago Urban League, the National Urban League and churches throughout Illinois to promote the public-health benefits of COVID-19 vaccines, which in the case of the Pfizer vaccine is believed to be 95% effective in treating the virus.

“I’ve heard all kinds of, ‘Oh, they have put ‘x,y,z’ in this vaccine, and that’s why I won’t take it,’” she said. “We just need to get to the real facts and then let people make their best decision for themselves and their family and understand the risk-benefit ratio of the decisions they might be contemplating.”

Several community-based clinic leaders that serve low-income residents and people of color told WBEZ recently that they too are working on outreach campaigns to help convince Black and brown communities of the safety and need of the vaccine.

In October, the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated conducted a joint nationwide survey that showed 49% of Black Americans would avoid taking a COVID-19 vaccine even if doctors deemed it safe and the medicine was offered at no cost.

Another obstacle exists in getting uniform public support for a coronavirus vaccine, the governor said.

Pritzker pointed to the anti-vaccination community in Illinois that feeds off of disinformation spread by President Donald Trump and conservative talk-radio personalities and that existed before the pandemic.

“How will we address this? We’re trying very hard, first of all, to just put the facts out there,” the governor told reporters. “I’d hope people will simply read about the science, read what you all will write, will hear what we’re saying, what doctors and researchers are saying, and be able to overcome rumors that they hear on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.”

Illinois is slated to receive 109,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine as soon as next week once it gains federal approval. That will only cover a fraction of the health care workers and long-term care facility residents who are first in line to receive a vaccine.

Ezike said the state is slated to receive as much as 400,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine after it is approved. But Pritzker questioned if that number will become reality since Pfizer had initially overstated how many doses of its vaccine would immediately arrive in Illinois.

“I’ll believe it when I see it when they arrive,” Pritzker said.

The state announced another 145 COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, with 7,910 new cases. Both numbers represent a slight decline from what Illinois has seen in the past week.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

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