NEW YORK — A construction site safety manager in Queens said that as a Black man, he was more worried about the prospect of being stopped by the police than he was about getting COVID-19.
A graduate student in the Bronx who had not gotten vaccinated said her worst fears seemed confirmed when a vaccine that the government was directing to Black and poorer neighborhoods was briefly suspended over a small number of dangerous blood clots.
And a civil rights activist in the Bronx said he grew suspicious when he heard last year that politicians were prioritizing minority neighborhoods for coronavirus vaccinations.
“Since when does America give anything good to Black people first?” said the activist, Hawk Newsome, a 44-year-old Black Lives Matter leader who is unvaccinated.
All three situations reflect a trend that has become a major concern to public health experts: Young Black New Yorkers are especially reluctant to get vaccinated, even as the delta variant is rapidly spreading among their ranks. City data shows that only 27% of Black New Yorkers ages 18 to 44 are fully vaccinated, compared with 48% of Latino residents and 52% of white residents in that age group.
This vaccination gap is emerging as the latest stark racial disparity in an epidemic full of them. Epidemiologists say they expect this third wave will hit Black New Yorkers especially hard.
“This is a major public health failure,” said Dr. Dustin Duncan, a public health researcher and Columbia University professor.
In interviews, dozens of Black New Yorkers across the city — an aspiring dancer in Brownsville, a young mother of five in Far Rockaway, a teacher in Canarsie, a Black Lives Matter activist in the Bronx, and many others — gave a long list of reasons for not getting vaccinated, many rooted in a fear that during these uncertain times they could not trust the government with their health.
The fact that the virus hit Black neighborhoods disproportionately during the first wave made many extra wary of getting vaccinated: They feel that they have survived the worst and that the health authorities had failed to help them then.
But ultimately, many also said they would get vaccinated if forced to do so.
“If it’s going to be mandatory to work, I’ll have no choice,” said Kaleshia Sostre, a 27-year-old from Red Hook, Brooklyn, who teaches parenting classes to young mothers.
In Canarsie, Brooklyn, a 21-year-old college student, Justin Mercado, said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement that dining in a restaurant would require proof of vaccination got his attention. He is now likely to get vaccinated.
“I want to go on a date sometime and enjoy life as much as I can before this strain shuts us back down,” Mercado said.
For months, the city had focused its vaccination campaign on older residents who are at higher risk of hospitalization and death.
But lately the city has begun to reach out more to young New Yorkers, offering $100 payments for first doses, urging students to get vaccinated before school starts and nudging employers to pressure their employees to get vaccinated.
“We’re not done yet,” said Dr. Torian Easterling, chief equity officer of the New York City Health Department. “We’re continuing to announce more interventions and more strategies to support New Yorkers getting vaccinated.”
In interviews, Black men and women said that much of their distrust of the coronavirus vaccine was shaped by their own experiences with discrimination or their identity as Black Americans.
“I’m supposed to worry about getting sick when I go outside, versus getting killed by a cop or something like that?” said Jayson Clemons, 41, the construction site safety manager from Queens. After years of trying to be careful not to give the police a reason to stop him — avoiding cars with window tint or rims, and making sure when commuting that his attire clearly marked him as a construction worker — he said he refused to be preoccupied by COVID-19.
He said he would rather put his trust in masks and hand sanitizer — which he credits with keeping him healthy as he worked at construction sites throughout the pandemic — than a new vaccine that the government is pushing people to take. “They came out with one so fast for COVID, and now they want to pay you to take it,” he said. “It seems fishy.”
Some Black women described the need they felt to conduct their own research — and ask around — before deciding if the coronavirus vaccine was safe.
“It takes a little bit of hypervigilance when you’re a woman of color,” said Jazmine Shavuo-Goodwin, 31, who believes she encountered medical racism when doctors were dismissive of her severe stomach problems. “There’s a lot of homework you have to do, because your doctors may not truly listen to you, to your full complaint, before they’ve already diagnosed you.”
Shavuo-Goodwin helps manage dental clinics for Medicaid patients and is studying to be a clinical therapist. Both her job and school require her to be vaccinated against coronavirus, but she has yet to get a shot.
“I’m out of compliance,” said Shavuo-Goodwin, who is Black and lives in the South Bronx. “I have done heaps of research looking for things that would make me confident and comfortable getting the vaccine, but honestly I haven’t.”
All three vaccines being used in the United States have received an emergency authorization from the Federal Drug Administration. At least one of the vaccines is expected to get full approval by the fall.
When the vaccination campaign began last year, de Blasio said he intended to prioritize the same Black and Latino neighborhoods that were hardest hit during the devastating initial wave.
More than one-third of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers may have been infected in that initial wave, twice the infection rate of white residents. And people in these two groups died at elevated rates, partly because of higher prevalence of underlying conditions, but also because the few hospitals in their neighborhoods were quickly overwhelmed.
Many Black New Yorkers struggled to make sense of why their community suffered so in that first wave.
Some of the fears about the vaccine go back centuries, through the nation’s long history of medical experimentation on Black enslaved people and later on Black citizens. In interviews, some Black New Yorkers mentioned the government’s decadeslong Tuskegee syphilis experiment — in which doctors withheld treatment from Black men with syphilis.
Distrust for the vaccine has also been reinforced by contemporary injustices. In interviews, a number of Black New Yorkers wondered how vaccines for COVID-19 could have emerged so quickly, but not one for HIV, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans. Others described their own experiences living in decrepit public housing projects or with the criminal justice system as leaving them doubtful they could trust the government.
Some Black New Yorkers were reassured to see white suburbanites driving to predominantly Black neighborhoods like Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the spring in pursuit of open vaccine appointments, interviews show. But what happened next seemed to confirm some fears.
One of the three vaccines — the single-shot Johnson & Johnson — had been directed to Black and Latino communities, among other places. It required only one shot — not two like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — and had less onerous refrigeration requirements. It struck many government officials as the obvious choice for the pop-up vaccine clinics at public housing projects and churches that were central to the government’s plan for vaccinating minority neighborhoods.
But in April, the federal government ordered a brief suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after it was linked to blood clots in the brains of several women.
“It reaffirmed my hesitance, it reaffirmed everything,” Shavuo-Goodwin, the graduate student and clinic manager, said. “It just shows Black lives don’t matter. You can test that on us just like you tested syphilis on us.”
This fear was echoed in interview after interview, from the Bronx to South Brooklyn, as many Black New Yorkers said the Johnson & Johnson suspension left them more anxious that the vaccines were unsafe, insufficiently tested and steered to Black neighborhoods. That fear has been slow to dissipate, even as much of the rest of the country got vaccinated.
“They’re experimenting on us,” said Knya White, 21, of Canarsie, Brooklyn, a predominantly Black neighborhood.
After a short pause, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was safe for use.
Because the vaccine was rolled out by age cohorts, many young adults are now confronting the question of whether to become vaccinated as an individual choice, rather than as a decision made with their families.
Ikim Powell, 26, said that the most vulnerable member of his family — his mother — was already vaccinated.
“She’s immunocompromised and has COPD, diabetes, and has survived aneurysms and strokes,” said Powell, who lives on Staten Island and works for a nonprofit organization.
She is vaccinated. He’s not. “I kind of do my own thing,” he said.