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Illinois Health Director Talks Building Trust In Black Areas Ahead Of COVID-19 Vaccine Event

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health Director, speaks during a coronavirus update. Ezike will host an virtual event on Tuesday to listen to concerns local Black residents have with the COVID-19 vaccine.
Screenshot of Ngozi Ezike via Blue Room Stream
Blue Room Stream
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health Director, speaks during a coronavirus update. Ezike will host an virtual event on Tuesday to listen to concerns local Black residents have with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, tonight will lead a conversation about COVID-19 vaccine safety with Black residents in the metro-east.

The virtual event, titled “Let’s Talk Vaccine”, is hosted by the United Congregations of Metro East and Piasa Palisades Sierra Club. It will be streamed at 6:30 p.m. on Facebook Live.

Ezike said she’s looking forward to simply listening to people’s concerns about taking the vaccine. She wants to hear from people.

“I’m going to talk very little, and I just want to answer questions,” Ezike said. “I want to know what the problem is, what have they heard and what do they need to know.

“I’m going to keep it real. I’m not going to say stuff that I don’t know. I’m going to say stuff that I do know and then I want them to know as much as I know so then hopefully they’ll see we’re better off taking the vaccine than our chances with COVID.

“COVID has not been nice to people of color, and we shouldn’t give this virus opportunities to take more of us out.”

Black people in the United States are three times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19. In St. Clair County, Black-majority communities have twice as many cases per capita as mostly white communities when comparing zip codes with similar testing rates, according to a BND analysis in July. Ezike hopes those numbers, along with other COVID-19 statistics across the country, can help persuade people to take the vaccine.

“When I see people saying that they don’t know enough about it, I think well yea, we have had over, just in this country, 16 million people get the vaccine, so if it was something like you get the vaccine and all these horrible things happen to you right after, we would know that,” Ezike said. “On the other hand, I do really know what can happen with COVID. I’ve got almost 19,000 people who aren’t here because of COVID.

“So, what we know about COVID is nothing to fool with, and I don’t want someone to say no to a potentially life-saving vaccine when they don’t have to.”

A December survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 62% of Black adults in the country will take the vaccine. However, about half of Black adults aren’t confident that the development of the vaccine considers the needs of Black people.

“Government has not done right by Black folks,” Ezike said about factors contributing to distrust in the Black community. “That’s well-established, that’s well-documented. There are old examples, there are current examples. There is that general mistrust.

“There are also examples of communities of color being done wrong even as it relates to health care, medical care, so all of that plays into this. We know that, in general, Black communities do not take the flu shot at the same rate as other communities, so there has been this culture of vaccine hesitancy that already existed, so COVID is just another manifestation of that.”

That’s why Ezike is working with community organizations across the state to ensure underserved areas have the appropriate information about the COVID-19 vaccine. Since rollout for the vaccine began in the state, Ezike said her team has held countless events with organizations like the Urban League and Black churches to address residents’ concerns.

She thinks education is the first step in building the Black community’s confidence in the vaccine.

“Maybe the reasons people are not taking it are different than what we understand, so we need to know what information they’re working on,” Ezike said.

She said if people are hearing inaccurate information, “we need to make sure that we put out the accurate information.

She said some people believe they can get COVID from the vaccine.

“ If people think the vaccine will give you COVID, I wouldn’t want to take it either, so people need to know that it doesn’t. People think it can make you infertile. We don’t have any evidence of that.”

Earlier this month, Ezike received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. She said hearing from trusted people in the community, especially Black people, about their personal experiences with the vaccine might also help reduce mistrust. Over 681,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer or Moderna) have been administered in Illinois. St. Clair County has administered 9,386 of them.

“There are side effects,” Ezike said. “My arm was sore after the first dose. I hear the second one can have even more effects, and you start to feel even more achy and tired and maybe chills. You can keep it real and say what you can expect, but also say that I strongly believe in this, recommend it, know it to be safe, and I recommend this for you.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, common side effects after taking the vaccine include pain and swelling in the area where the shot was given along with fever and chills throughout the body.

The agency is recommending that people take the vaccine, along with wearing masks and socially distancing, to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Ezike knows that education isn’t always enough to persuade people to take the vaccine.

“It’s not enough to just talk to people,” she said. “The state is going to have messaging with billboards and ads and commercials. We are going to make sure that there’s access. We’re going to look at the communities of color that have had a bad time with COVID, and we’re gonna put more vaccines in those places. We’re going to put it in their health departments.”

Tuesday’s event will be streamed from the United Congregations of Metro East’s Facebook page. Next month, Ezike will partner with Macedonia Baptist Church for a community conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Everybody has their sphere of influence, so the more people you can talk to, hopefully they’ll turn around and talk to the same people so that no one can say they didn’t hear the right information,” Ezike said. “We’re really hoping that everyone will have access to the right information and hopefully after you get the facts, you’ll get the vax.”

DeAsia Page is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

DeAsia Page covers East St. Louis and its surrounding areas for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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