Vaccine hesitancy poses challenge in Wisconsin's fight against COVID-19

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Posted at 5:32 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 19:06:55-04

MILWAUKEE — Health officials are finding that vaccine mistrust is very real, and they're trying to address the worries.

"Hearing from people you trust and hearing from authentic voices in the community is absolutely the number one avenue to building that vaccine confidence," said Mara Lord, Chair of the Vaccine Integrated Communications Outreach & Mobilization for Milwaukee County.

"Hesitancy is a real concern. At the end of the day, it's about local validators. Whether it's a local minister or whether it's a local community leader, that is who we are encouraging to step up," said Gov. Tony Evers.

After a lot of praying, Milwaukee pastor Kurt Owens reluctantly decided to get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but he says he doesn't feel comfortable telling his congregation to get vaccinated.

"For me, it's not a situation where I feel comfortable telling people it's safe. I don't know if it's safe," said Owens, service pastor for UFlourish Church.

Pastor Owens says there is a true fear of the vaccine in minority communities, especially among African Americans, citing the Tuskegee experiment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Tuskegee experiment was a study that initially involved 600 black men, 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness.

"Many people are not aware of the Tuskegee experiment outside of the minority community, but it's something that's really close to heart in the minority community," said Owens.

After one week of providing walk-in vaccine clinics for communities of color in Milwaukee County, health officials say turnout isn't exactly what they expected it to be. Taking a closer look: On Monday, North Division High School administered 434 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to residents, but by Thursday, only 264 doses were administered. That compares to South Division High School, where they've been steadily administering at least 400 doses over the past week, but officials say even more could be given out.

"The numbers don't surprise us at this point in time. We do need to do much more work in communities to build up vaccine confidence," said Lord.

Over the next couple of months, Lord says Milwaukee County's vaccine outreach team is developing several strategies to build confidence, including having people who got the vaccine share their experiences.

For more information on the change in vaccine confidence since December 2020 click here.

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