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As the nation's racial gap closes for vaccination rates, SLO County's Black population lags behind 

Wedding photographer and academic counselor Renoda Campbell thought of her older parents, who migrated to San Luis Obispo County from the American South, when the nation first rolled out COVID-19 vaccines.

"When it comes to African Americans in the medical community, we haven't been treated well. There just has been a skepticism about medical issues in general," Campbell said.

click to enlarge FALLING BEHIND Only 28.8 percent of SLO County's Black residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—a lower rate than the overall 54 percent of Black Californians who are fully inoculated. - FILE IMAGE DESIGN BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • File Image Design By Alex Zuniga
  • FALLING BEHIND Only 28.8 percent of SLO County's Black residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—a lower rate than the overall 54 percent of Black Californians who are fully inoculated.

Though she was also concerned about the quickness with which vaccines arrived, it was only when she heard about popular Black figures like Kamala Harris getting their shots that Campbell started researching the importance of getting inoculated. By April, she was fully vaccinated, and on Nov. 3 the city of SLO resident also rolled up her sleeve for the booster shot.

Campbell's hesitation mirrored Black America's. Accessing COVID-19 tests and vaccines was disproportionate by race, income, and social standing. People of color also overrepresented front-line workers and essential-jobs employees, which made them more vulnerable to the disease. However, with robust public health campaigning, the nationwide vaccination numbers among Black and Hispanic groups now almost reflect their population rate. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that by late September, 70 percent of Black adults and 73 percent of Hispanic adults had received at least one vaccine dose.

But SLO County is going against this grain.

As of Nov. 1, only 28.8 percent of the county's Black residents were fully vaccinated, according to California Department of Public Health data. About 68 percent of the county's Black population hasn't received a single dose yet. SLO County's community is more hesitant than the state's overall Black population where 54 percent are fully vaccinated and 6 percent are at least partially vaccinated.

"We are aware of the numbers. I don't understand it because I feel that we all [must] get vaccinated so that we can actually stop this spread and stop the deaths. Black people have been lied to; people have scammed them. I think that's where the hesitancy comes from—fear of the unknown and the past," said Cheryl Vines, NAACP SLO County's branch secretary.

The past that Vines mentioned is defined by medical racism. Both Campbell and Vines spoke about the Tuskegee Experiment that still informs fear in Black minds when seeking medical help. Conducted between 1932 and 1972, the study examined the effects of untreated syphilis in nearly 400 Black men, even though it was entirely treatable. More than 100 of them died as a result.

Campbell also highlighted the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her diagnosis and treatment, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore gave researchers samples of her cancerous cells without her consent. These cells, known as HeLa, are still widely used today.

"African American women aren't given medication as much as people of other races because they're considered strong and can handle it. The culmination of these particular thoughts and what has happened in the past made me skeptical," Campbell said.

Vines added that incidents like the Tuskegee Experiment and the disproportionate deaths of pregnant Black women are still talked about by Black people in SLO County when the NAACP does outreach work on vaccine awareness in communities of color. It doesn't help the they make up only 2 percent of the county population.

"There's still some underlying trust issues with spoken word. We don't fare very well because there's not that many of us. If there's only two of us in this situation and only one of us gets help, that's a 50 percent response rate," said Preston Allen, a Cal Poly professor emeritus and R.A.C.E. Matters SLO member.

R.A.C.E. Matters helmed SLO County's vaccine outreach efforts in partnership with the Department of Public Health. In June, R.A.C.E. Matters and Public Health teamed up with SnapNurse to host a traveling nurses program at the Cuesta College vaccination site. The pair also released public service announcements on YouTube about the importance of overcoming fears about the vaccine. All speakers came from SLO County's Black community.

The NAACP is working to dispel hesitancy in underrepresented groups. Vines told New Times that the NAACP received a grant from the NAACP's California Hawaii State Conference for vaccine outreach. They are working on a campaign to get more Black and Hispanic people vaccinated. One of their methods to get more people to sit up and listen: spreading awareness at church.

"We will be meeting with a couple of the Black pastors in the area to let them know what we're planning and to get their support as well," she said. "We're planning on Nov. 21 to have a pop-up clinic in North County. So we'll be meeting with the pastors to see what the best location is for that."

Vines and Allen said they didn't have second thoughts about the vaccine. And even though Allen fell into the top-priority senior citizens bracket, he had a tough time trying to find an available slot at places like Rite Aid. He said he was relieved when a local government-run vaccine site made room for him.

"I felt like I won the lottery," said the 30-year Arroyo Grande resident. "It was such an absurd living experience. What are those other people who are still hesitating to get the vaccine thinking? Did they just accept this as the new reality maybe?" Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com

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