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U of T professor chairs Black Scientists’ Task Force striving for equitable vaccine rollout for Black community

Intersection between historical inequities, misinformation used to encourage investigation
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The City of Toronto has created the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity as part of the TO Supports: Targeted Equity Action Plan. The task force will be chaired by Akwatu Khenti, an assistant professor at U of T, and will include members of the scientific and medical community. The Black community in Toronto has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with a greater number of cases relative to the population. 

The task force is collaborating with community partners to review the Black community’s major concerns and answer questions regarding COVID-19 and vaccination, given the community’s experiences of racism and corresponding mistrust of the health care system.

The initiative will aim to make effective recommendations to the city based on a series of events, the first of which was a town hall meeting that took place on February 13. The meeting was structured as a question and answer session with Black medical professionals, and it addressed a wide range of topics, including vaccine development, historical racism in health care, and misinformation. 

The task force will deliver its report to the city by April 30, which will be used to improve the vaccine rollout. 

Past and present inequities

The task force was created in response to data from the city that showed that Black people are disproportionately impacted by the virus, accounting for about 26 per cent of cases. 

There are many factors that contribute to the intensity of this impact, including the fact that Black individuals are more likely to be frontline workers, and to have poor housing, food insecurity, and worse access to health care.

At the same time, Black people display the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy, at 34 per cent. For Black communities, mistrust of the health care system is associated with experiences of systemic racism, both past and present.

In an email to The Varsity, Dr. Isaac Odame, a U of T professor and member of the task force, explained that, consequently, any prioritization of racialized people in the vaccine rollout is “contrary to their past and present experiences of race-based inequities within the health system.”

He added that the community needs more assurance that the vaccine is specifically safe for Black individuals. The task force aims to provide this assurance by leveraging the fact that, according to a report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Covid Collaborative, among others, Black people are two times more likely to trust health information coming from Black professionals than white individuals.

Task force strategy

The task force will address vaccine hesitancy in the Black community by holding multifaceted and dialogue-driven events with Black leaders, groups, and individuals. It will review the feedback from these events to offer recommendations to the city on vaccine rollout.

In an email to The Varsity, the City of Toronto added that the primary goal of this program is to reduce hospitalization risks and provide balanced information to Black communities by building long-term relationships with community members. Surveys and data analytics will be used to gauge shifting acceptance rates and address inequities in Toronto’s health care system that reach beyond COVID-19.

Odame participated as a panel member at the task force’s first town hall. He wrote to The Varsity that his expertise on sickle cell disease, which predominantly affects people of African descent, will be useful in identifying the intersectionalities between race, health, and poor access to health care. 

Other panelists included Dr. Zainab Abdurrahman, an adjunct professor from McMaster University, and former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes. They encouraged attendees to ask questions about the vaccine, and argued that vaccine hesitancy in the Black community is a healthy skepticism given historical inequities in health care.

They acknowledged the atrocities committed by the health care system against Black people as valid reasons for hesitation. Instances of medical abuse such as the Tuskegee Study were discussed, wherein 600 Black men were inadequately treated for syphilis without their informed consent.

Discussion surrounding the actual science behind the vaccine involved its effects on Black people specifically and the rapid approval relative to past vaccines. Odame emphasized that 10 per cent of trial participants in the Moderna and Pfizer trials had been Black.

Caesar-Chavannes said that, while she had initially been skeptical of a trial process that appeared rushed, listening to experts had helped her gain confidence in the safety of the vaccine.

“Getting off [the] fence and onto the side where I said, ‘Okay… I will join this task force,’ is because I really did my research; I did my homework when it came to understanding,’ ” Caesar-Chavannes said. “And then listening to this group of experts has been really eye opening.”

Caesar-Chavannes emphasized the importance of informed consent in the vaccine rollout. She encouraged attendees to ask questions and seek answers so they would be confident that they understood what getting the vaccine meant.

The event ended on a positive note, with some panelists revealing that they had already been vaccinated and encouraging members to get to a place where they would be comfortable making the decision of whether or not to do so themselves.

They also encouraged attendees to come to the next town hall meeting, which will take place on February 20 and focus on the science behind vaccines.