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Troubled history led to resistance to COVID-19 shots in communities of color, experts say

A senior receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a

A senior receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a health care worker after arriving on a bus in Pahokee, Fla., on Feb. 3. Credit: AP/Greg Lovett

Systemic racism in the medical field, coupled with a history of misleading communities of color without their consent, resulted in a culture of skepticism among minorities who are hesitant to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Long Island doctors and experts.

"We have to embrace this issue and this history as we have this conversation about the vaccine because people have real feelings with why they feel the way they feel about medicine," said Dr. Jedan Phillips, medical director with the Health Outreach and Medical Education program at Stony Brook University Hospital. "We can talk about Tuskegee. … We can talk about sterilization of women of color at ICE facilities. … The historical PTSD we have as people of color has to be acknowledged as we roll out the vaccine to get more people to understand the importance of it."

Phillips was one of several physicians of color who participated in Thursday night’s webinar panel meant to lay out facts about the COVID-19 vaccine. The event was sponsored by Suffolk County’s Office of Minority Affairs, Suffolk County’s Chapter of 100 Black Women and the county’s African-American Advisory Board.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a participant, said while he is not an expert, the webinar was meant to also dispel myths about the vaccine. "It is important for us to provide you the information so that you can make the best choice to help keep you and your family healthy and to help protect all of us in the community."

Dr. Adam El Sehamy, an internal medicine physician at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn who has treated COVID-19 patients, spoke about side effects of the vaccine.

"The biggest one is fatigue. About 60% of the people feel just a bit tired, and there are things like headaches, and more serious, fever," El Sehamy said. "This is just your body’s response to the vaccine … creating antibodies. People just need to go in with that anticipation that you might not feel great for a day."

Dr. Dilys White, a pediatrician at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, treats patients as old as 21. She said people who are inoculated can fight off arm soreness by frequently moving the arm which was vaccinated after a shot is administered. She said Tylenol can take care of fevers. White and other doctors, vouched for the vaccine’s safety because they had been inoculated themselves.

Suffolk Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said vaccine availability remains low. She said that’s why people are struggling to secure inoculation appointments. As of last week, Suffolk had received 121,000 vaccines, but nearly 700,000 residents are eligible to receive it, Baird-Streeter said.

"There is not a plethora of the vaccine doses to be able to administer," she said.

Baird-Streeter stressed patience, noting how President Joe Biden has prioritized ramping up vaccine distributions which will trickle down to eligible county residents.

"There is a commitment to push out more vaccine to the states, and the states to push it out to the municipalities."

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