Black community in Texas faces critical moment in COVID-19 fight

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- New data shows less than a third of our Black community is making plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and the echoes of a dark moment in American history could be to blame.

Despite evidence of the virus's disproportionate effects on people of color, leaders warned Wednesday night during an ABC13 town hall that infections and hospitalizations in the Black community are likely to rise unless hesitation about the vaccine is addressed soon.

"The legacy of mistrust goes back many many years, and it's not just in medicine but in other areas," said Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Minter, health and human services director of Fort Bend County. "But I think the really important thing to consider is that we don't want that legacy to then create a new legacy of more illness."

Pastor Timothy Sloan of The Luke Church in Humble says whispers of the 1932 Tuskegee experiment are colliding with conspiracy theories online, creating tension between the hopes of medical leaders encouraging vaccination and the fears of the Black community.

It has been 89 years since American Public Health Service researchers studied 400 Black men who already had syphilis. The men were never told they were sick and never treated for it. Some even died from the disease.

"There's so many people who may not have been around during those times... but the oral tradition that had been passed down through generations has continued to drip in that trauma from further generations," Sloan said.

For others in our minority communities, the phrase 'Operation Warp Speed' alone has led some to question the vaccine's safety and efficacy.

"(The vaccine) has been researched for over a decade," Minter said. "People have been doing good science on this product for many years, but all of a sudden it was needed faster."

While the vaccine had been in development following the arrival of the SARS virus in 2002, Minter said money wasn't there to see it through. When COVID-19 became a global concern, she says scientists were finally able to put the vaccine to the test.

Minter confessed even she and her peers in the medical community had to do their own research on the vaccines at first.

"We did not want to be in the position of pushing out a vaccine that we didn't have confidence in, and I can tell you, we all have confidence in this one," Minter said. "All of us have rolled up our sleeves. We did our homework, and by about July, we were ready, we felt like things were good, and we felt like not only could we take it but we could promote it."

Like Dr. Minter, elected officials in the Black community are also hoping to set an example.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds said he and other colleagues, including Reps. Senfonia Thompson and Borris Miles, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, sought to build confidence in the vaccine by getting their shots in public.

"I know that people are stir crazy," Reynolds acknowledged. "I miss concerts, I miss the rodeo. I've missed going and fraternizing with my friends and family and social gatherings, but we have to do what we have to do right now, in order to enjoy long-term health."

Fort Bend Co. Commissioner Grady Prestage said after suffering the better part of a year with this pandemic, the time is now for the Black community to start educating itself, especially as the state awaits ramped up vaccine distribution from President Joe Biden's administration.

"This is show time. This is the Super Bowl. This is not a drill, this is real life," Prestage said.

Prestage said plans are underway in Fort Bend County to launch mobile units and open hubs in Missouri City, the Stafford Center, Smart Financial Center and Katy Mills Mall, all in an effort to get more shots in arms.

RELATED: Virus fatigue and vaccine myths spike infections for Hispanics

Watch a recap of the event, live newscasts and in-depth reporting from ABC13 on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and AndroidTV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."

VACCINE TRACKER: Track COVID-19 vaccine availability and progress across Houston
Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.