Massachusetts is closing the racial gap in COVID-19 vaccination rates by some metrics, but there is still more work to be done, Boston doctors say.
The Bay State had some success with vaccination in part because coronavirus-related care was made more accessible during the pandemic by meeting people where they're at. But major disparities continue to have a devastating impact on the Black community.
In recognition of Black History Month, four top Boston doctors talked about what Massachusetts has done right to address those disparities and what work still needs to be done during NBC10 Boston's weekly "COVID Q&A" series Tuesday.
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Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
When COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out in 2020, there were concerns about vaccine hesitancy in part due to historical trauma that still exists within the Black community.
"We are still contending with earned mistrust of our communities of color, including our Black communities, towards the medical establishment, which is not just based on historical aspects of mistreatment and exclusion, but ongoing exclusion and systemic racism," Boston Medical Center's Dr. Cassandra Pierre said.
There's some evidence to suggest that, in the months since, vaccine hesitancy fell faster among Black Americans than among white Americans nationally, according to survey results published in JAMA Network Open.
Dr. Sharma Joseph of Tufts Medical Center credited this progress, in part, to people's ability to be flexible in the way they interpret data as well as improved access to vaccines.
"Perhaps for the first time, you know, relationships and trust has been improving with Black members of our communities and hospital systems," Joseph said. "The key will be to continue to invoke those."
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou of Boston Medical Center also spoke to the significance of physicians leading by example, which was a new dynamic for her that emerged during the pandemic.
"One thing that I found out is, when I'm in the office with my patients, they actually want to know, 'Did you get vaccinated? Would you give it to your family member?' So I think that it was so key to share our personal stories, and to share as to why we think this is safe and effective," she said. "And I think that to me, it's made a really big difference."
Overall, Boston doctors say they are pleased with where the COVID-19 vaccination rates are trending in Massachusetts as it relates to race. Approximately 74% of the Black population has had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while 81% of the white population has had one dose, according to the latest Weekly COVID-19 Vaccination Report shows.
"Our vaccination numbers among Black and Latinx communities is actually starting to approach and narrow the gap that we have seen between Black and white people, which is wonderful news," said.
At one point in the pandemic, Assoumou said that she and Pierre, who work together at Boston Medical Center, rejoiced when they learned that Massachusetts had the highest vaccination rates among Black people in the country.
"We were very excited about that," Assoumou said. "We've continued to make some gains. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the key to success is actually working and listening to the community."
Pierre noted that the disparities still exist when looking at other metrics, including booster shots and among children. Approximately 38% of the Black population has received a booster shot, while 58% of white people have been boosted.
"You see those disparities playing out once again," Pierre said. "We still continue to have divisions in different populations."
Dr. Claire-Cecile Pierre of Brigham and Women’s Hospital emphasized that, in order to address those disparities, the health care system and those who work in it need to be more transparent and work hard to understand the communities they serve.
"Disparities are persistent because they have been here for a long time and they come from years and centuries and continue today -- policies and structures that exclude people based on the color of their skin," she said. "And so because of that, what we're finding ourselves doing is really trying to counter these messages and explain and be more open as a health system as a whole."
The doctors credited the vaccination rate success in part by making vaccines more accessible during the pandemic through clinics and mobile vaccination sites across the state. Boston doctors pointed to community organizers and governing bodies that worked together to establish various options like mobile testing and vaccination sites across the state.
Dr. Cassandra Pierre said this strategy should be utilized in a way to address systemic inequities in the health car system moving forward.
"We need to really think about how we can use those established community sites that many healthcare institutions and public health organizations have set up to address the pandemic and mold them in a way that actually addresses the ongoing needs of community in a way that can then shore up the resiliency and the health of our of our Black and other people of color communities," she said.