Are minorities getting the COVID-19 care they need?

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By CHLOE TROFATTER 
Capital News Service

LANSING — Minority groups in Michigan, including Native Americans, are struggling for access and trust in the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Your community primary care providers tend to take care of better-paying populations, those without as much disparities,” said Dennis Litos, the CEO of the Michigan Primary Care Association, an advocacy group for 44 health centers that provide health services for underserved communities.

“It’s important that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services makes the decision very soon to spread that vaccine distribution out further so other populations, like ours who are in need, can begin to receive vaccine,” he said. 

Frank Cloutier, the director of public relations for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in Mt. Pleasant, says its clinic has received vaccines, but is struggling to distribute them.  

“We don’t know until a couple of days beforehand that we’re getting vaccines or how many,” Cloutier said. “It’s been a unique challenge scheduling these vaccine clinics, getting the appointments made and getting people here so we can get shots in arms.”

American Indian Health & Family Services of Southeast Michigan, an urban clinic belonging to the Primary Care Association, is struggling to distribute vaccines for a different reason, according to Shelly Hinshaw, the clinic’s administrative coordinator. 

The Detroit clinic is struggling to garner trust from the community, she said.

“People are afraid. It’s almost like a combination of  ‘I’m afraid to get sick, but I’m also afraid to get the vaccine.’ So we have been using our Facebook and newsletter to share information and try to eradicate that fear,” Hinshaw said.

According to Cloutier, there also has been some hesitation among members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, mostly because of unknown side effects from the vaccine. 

A December study from the Pew Research Center reported that 21% of Americans say they most likely won’t get the vaccine, even with further information. 

Reasons cited in the study were concerns with unknown side effects and distrust in the vaccine development process.

Black Americans remain the least likely to get the vaccine, according to the study. 

Ronald Hall, an expert in race and discrimination at Michigan State University, said this distrust stems from the controversial Tuskegee Study — a 40-year government funded study of untreated syphillis in black men. 

The study failed to provide informed consent to its participants, gave ineffective treatment, and ultimately led to the death of 128 participants from untreated syphilis or complications.

Indigenous populations across the country have been concerned with the technological barriers to accessing and maintaining the vaccine, according to a November report, “Practical hurdles, cultural distrust in Native communities could hamper vaccine distribution” from NBC News.

Cloutier expressed the same sentiment: “If it was the Pfizer vaccine, we would have to work in real time to get the equipment to maintain a healthy standard of that vaccine.”

“It would take collaboration with Indian Health Services, Isabella County, the state of Michigan and all of our other regional partners to get necessary equipment,” he said. 

This inequity of resources comes to no surprise to Hall, he said. “There is an unequal distribution of care as the American norm for people of color and indigenous tribes.” 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ goal is to vaccinate 70% of the population age 16 years and older as quickly as possible, according to Lynn Sutfin, a department public information officer. 

“Our strategy includes the guiding principle that all Michiganders have equitable access to vaccines,” she said. “The first vaccination phase targeted healthcare workers, which, given the disparities in the healthcare worker field, will disadvantage areas with a higher minority residence.”