Trust, representation and access are big hurdles for vaccine distribution in Lafayette’s Black community

Woman receives first dose of covid vaccine
Iris Malone, President of the Acadiana Black Nurses Association, administers the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Donna Tolbert, a fellow nurse. Photo by Stacy Conrad

Precious Francis checked in with National Guard officers inside a church on Lafayette’s Northside and answered some familiar questions: Headache? Fever? New loss of taste or smell? 

“I’m just ready for all this stuff to cease,” Francis said, laughing. 

Francis, who is Black, then took her socially distant seat to await a Covid vaccine. She was among dozens last week — white and Black — lining up at Progressive Baptist Church for a “Sleeves Up” event encouraging Lafayette’s Black residents to get vaccinated. 

Vaccine participation is steadily climbing nationally and locally. But despite the disproportionate impact Covid has wreaked on communities of color, the proportion of Black residents who’ve gotten their first vaccine shot continues to fall short. 

As neighboring states lift protective restrictions on gatherings and businesses, the virus could threaten a fourth wave on communities that have yet to be vaccinated. That means even as the coronavirus pandemic shows early signs of receding, Black communities remain exposed. 

“This thing is a deadly virus,” says Dr. Ernest Kinchen, 81, a graduate of Howard University’s College of Medicine with more than 50 years of experience practicing general surgery and internal medicine in Acadiana. “It will kill you without any remorse,” Kinche adds. “It’ll roll over you.”

The lag in vaccine distribution among African Americans is true across the country and locally. According to preliminary data compiled by the Louisiana Department of Health, about 18% of first doses in Lafayette Parish have been administered to Black residents, who make up 25% of the total population. By contrast, African Americans account for at least 33% of Covid fatalities in the parish. 

Up front, vaccine rollout in Black communities hits some basic logistical barriers: lack of access to information, online scheduling platforms and testing sites. Dr. Tina Stefanski, the Acadiana region medical director of the state’s Office of Public Health, says the digital divide is a serious issue locally. Events like the one at Progressive Baptist, she says, “are really, really important, because it’s very easy for people to get to this site, it’s trusted in the community. And that’s the access piece that we’re working to improve.”

Deeper rooted barriers, like mistrust fostered by persistent racism in healthcare, however, are more difficult to problem solve.  

“The distrust is real,” says Bently Senegal, director of community services at Lourdes. He notes the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which U.S. government researchers lured hundreds of Black men unknowingly into what became a 40-year study with the promise of free medical care. Dozens died of untreated syphilis, even as penicillin became available. 

Lourdes’ Director of Community Services Bently Senegal | Photo courtesy of Lourdes

Black people continue to receive comparatively poor care in clinical settings, which some public health researchers say is a primary cause of today’s hesitancy. And there appears to be a link between quality of care Black patients receive and Black representation in medicine. A recent study found that infant mortality among Black newborns was halved when they were cared for after birth by a Black physician instead of a white doctor. Dr. Susan Moore, a 52-year old Black doctor who died in December due to complications from COVID-19, suffered such substandard care while she was hospitalized that she felt “crushed,” saying in a viral video that her white doctor treated her like a drug addict when she asked for pain medication.

For Senegal, who is Black and got the shot in January, his own concerns were assuaged in learning that around 10% of the participants in Pfizer and Moderna’s clinical trials were Black. While still underrepresented relative to their portion of the general population, both trials included more racially diverse participants than is typical in trials for new drugs, he says, a fact that gave him more confidence. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines showed similar efficacy results across racial groups.

“Being in healthcare, I had the opportunity to study the research and understand it,” says Senegal. “I think we need to do a better job educating all races about the vaccine. We need more messengers.”

Recent findings underscore the need for more Black professionals in healthcare. In a study published in December by Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that informational videos about COVID-19 narrated by Black spokespeople were more likely to close knowledge gaps around the virus among Black participants. By contrast, there was no measurable difference after they watched the same videos narrated by white people, even government officials. For this reason, Lourdes plans to release informational media about the Covid vaccine this month featuring speakers from a diverse range of ages, races and occupations.

Black professionals in the medical field are scarce relative to their white counterparts. As of 2019, Black enrollees in medical school are between 40-60% underrepresented compared to their age-matched population at large. Without sufficient diversity in the discipline overall, messengers of color in the medical field can be hard to come by.

That’s historically been a problem in Lafayette, even late into the 20th century. When Kinchen first began practicing at Lafayette General in 1971, he was the only Black doctor in Lafayette. 

“The last, Dr. Jones, died five years before I got here,” he says. Kinchen credits the encouragement of his all-Black cohort at Howard, the support of his parents, and the occasional scholarship or grant with helping him blaze a trail in the medical field.

“Now when you look around [Lafayette], we have African American physicians in just about every discipline,” he says. “There has been progress, but not enough.” 

Kinchen himself avoided vaccines in his adulthood due to a history of allergies and asthma, but he got the shot at Lafayette General as soon as it was available to him.

“You always have to factor in whether or not you may have a reaction to the ingredients of the vaccine,” he says. “But when you take into consideration risk versus benefits, it’s a no brainer. The benefits far outweigh the danger.”

Dr. Iris Malone, president of the Acadiana Black Nurses’ Association, is a nurse practitioner with a doctorate in nursing and more than 38 years of experience in medicine. Interest in nursing and other medical professions is there among young people of color, she says, but the path into jobs is not clear.

Registered Nurse Donna Tolbert dances in celebration after receiving her first Covid vaccine dose | Photo by Stacy Conrad

“One of the things I do is work in a high school setting with adolescents,” she says. “And before they graduate, I have the opportunity to ask them, ‘What do you want to do when you graduate?’ They don’t always know, really, what it takes to become a nurse, so we can be mentors and say, ‘OK, if you want to be a nurse, this is what it’s going to take.’”

Donna Tolbert, a Black registered nurse, was among the very first to be inoculated at Thursday’s vaccine event at Progressive Baptist Church. Her daughter works for pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, which produced the third Covid vaccine made available in the U.S. Well educated on the vaccine, she was eager to get it done.

“I’m very ready,” she said just before receiving her first dose. After the shot in the arm, she danced.

Additional reporting by Nicole Mistretta