WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Vaccine hesitancy is an issue across many communities as we aim to reach herd immunity.
Health care workers are partnering with pastors, doctors, nurses organizations and everyday citizens to educate communities on COVID-19 vaccine safety.
In Palm Beach County, there is an orchestrated effort to get Black communities vaccinated.
Dr. Tony F. Drayton, the pastor of St. James Church in Riviera Beach and congregation organizer with Faith in Florida, is helping dispel myths.
"There is a false narrative going around. There is rhetoric, all kinds of conspiracy theories," Drayton said.
Drayton said as a pastor, he feels it's part of his job to get the correct information out there to the community.
"It's part of what we do: serve humanity, this community. That call for me is a call and a challenge," Drayton said.
He is on a mission to educate and inform about COVID-19 vaccine safety. Drayton said he's made inroads, but it has been a struggle at times.
"Not to the extent I envisioned," he said.
When asked why there is hesitancy to get the vaccine, he put it simply.
"A lack of trust," Drayton said. "That's basically it. ... A lack of trust that has been perpetuated in our community against those who do not look like us. Those who are white or different cultures."
Drayton believes the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will affect Black communities, escalating skepticism that was already present.
"Oh, definitely yeah! Incontrovertibly, yes," he said.
It's an issue that the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society is taking on. The group of health care professionals focuses on underserved communities in Palm Beach County.
"Especially since Johnson & Johnson, we’ve got to make up a little ground," said Laurel Dalton, the executive director of the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society. "We lost some ground on some of our outreach efforts with people of color."
Outreach efforts are now amped up to deliver a simple message that the vaccine is safe and effective.
"I ran into a 13 year old who told me that her family was afraid to get the vaccine, because they thought they would die if they got the vaccine, and so we are trying to change that messaging," Dalton said.
Public service announcements, canvassing Belle Glade and Riviera Beach, bus wraps and word of mouth targeting specific family members are all in the works to get the message out.
"If we can talk to one person, particularly the mom in a family, we see that trickle-down effect within the family, so that is who we are trying to reach right now," Dalton said. "We have programming specifically targeting moms who are pregnant now, but just in general, we find moms are doing the shopping in families, and then also they help make those health decisions, and say, 'Hey you need to go to the doctor,' to dad or kids, so they really hold a lot of power."
Dalton said they also believe there is power in personal stories.
"I had to say my goodbyes over FaceTime to my father," said Terrell Seabrooks, a 22-year-old college student from West Palm Beach who now works with the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society to share his story.
"Those percentages we talk about and how rare it is, became a reality for me on Aug. 26 when I lost my father to complications of COVID," Seabrooks said.
He said he's turning pain into purpose.
"One of the happiest days of my life was followed immediately by one of the worst days of my life," Seabrooks said. "The last real conversation I had with my father before he was admitted into the hospital was to tell him I was accepted into law school.”
Now, before Seabrooks heads off to Harvard Law School, he's spreading a message of love through vaccination.
"For me, it's about the message of COVID is real and the impact it can have on a family is devastating, so it's about really helping our community understand getting the vaccine is necessary," he said. "He definitely would have wanted me to speak out about this issue, and he definitely would be proud of the work I hope as well. I know he was proud when he was here."
Canvassing neighborhoods in Riviera Beach and Belle Glade is also part of the campaign.
Malcolm Sommons II walks door to door urging people to be safe, handing out information about the virus, masks and hand sanitizer.
"I think it's the most effective way, because a lot of people in the neighborhood like interaction, face-to-face interaction, knowing I can see them face-to-face and tell them these things," Sommons II said. "Now, they are able to ask questions they have, and I'm able to answer them."
There is a general sense that the real stories from trusted individuals and the human interaction matter. Rochun Ridley-McCray, the head of the Palm Beach County Black Nurses Association, agreed.
"We are an organization of women of color, and we go out and educate," Ridley-McCray said. "The main thing is educate. Educate, educate, educate."
Ridley-McCray is an infectious disease nurse practitioner who said the hesitancy is real.
"It’s a big problem, but I think it can be solved," Ridley-McCray said. "What I am hearing from people is they are scared. They don't want to get blood clots, They don't want to die. They don't know the long-term effect of it. … I let them know I got vaccinated in January, and I had no issues, and they can look at other people in their family as well too."
There is also a newfound effort to get younger people vaccinated.
"It continues to affect disproportionately African American and Latino populations in Palm Beach County," said Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist.
Kiminyo said younger patients are coming into the hospital.
"We are really worried about the younger people," Kiminyo said. "They are the ones out and about."
Kiminyo said tackling the complacency is not simple. It's real and comes from a deep place.
"When someone comes and all of a sudden says, 'You know, we are going to go ahead and ask you to get vaccinated,' because of our lack of health care, because of our knowledge about the science, or how the medical system works, or the lack of people looking like me telling them it is a safe vaccine. When those things aren't in place, I think that's when you get this hesitancy," Kiminyo said.
The issue is now being confronted on multiple fronts, all in an effort to turn that hesitancy into herd immunity.