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COVID-19 vaccine fears lurk in Tuskegee, town of syphilis study

COVID-19 shot given to a woman in Tuskegee, Ala.
A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccination to a woman at the county health department in Tuskegee, Ala., on Jan. 25.
(Jay Reeves / Associated Press)

Lucenia Dunn spent the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic encouraging people to wear masks and keep a safe distance from each other in Tuskegee, a mostly Black city in Alabama where the government once used unsuspecting African American men as guinea pigs in a study of a sexually transmitted disease.

Now, the onetime mayor of the town whose residents were subjected to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study is wary of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Among other things, Dunn is suspicious of the government promoting an inoculation that was developed in record time when it can’t seem to conduct adequate coronavirus testing or consistently provide quality rural healthcare.

“I’m not doing this vaccine right now. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to do it. But I know enough to withhold getting it until we see all that is involved,” said Dunn, who is Black.

The COVID-19 immunization campaign is off to a shaky start in Tuskegee and other parts of Alabama’s Macon County. Area leaders point to a resistance among residents spurred by a distrust of government promises and decades of failed health programs. Many people in this city of 8,500 have relatives who were subjected to unethical government experimentation during the syphilis study.

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“It does have an impact on decisions. Being in this community, growing up in this community, I would be very untruthful if I didn’t say that,” said Frank Lee, emergency management director in Macon County.

Health experts have stressed both the safety and efficacy of the two COVID-19 vaccines now being used in the U.S., from drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. They’ve noted that, while the vaccines were developed with record-breaking speed, they were based on decades of prior research. Vaccines used in the U.S. have shown no signs of serious side effects in studies of tens of thousands of people.

Only 32% of Black adults say they would take a COVID-19 vaccine. That speaks volumes about the need for a reckoning on racism in healthcare and building trust in the communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

And with more than 26 million COVID-19 shots administered in the U.S. alone so far, no red flags have been reported.

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But Tuskegee is not a complete outlier. A recent survey conducted by the communications firm Edelman revealed that as of November, only 59% of people in the U.S. were willing to get vaccinated within a year, with just 33% happy to do so as soon as possible.

Skepticism seems to run even deeper here.

When Alabama and the rest of the South were still segregated by race, government medical workers starting in 1932 withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with syphilis in Tuskegee and Macon County so that physicians could track the disease. The study, which involved about 600 men, ended in 1972 only after it was revealed by the Associated Press.

Ernest Hendon, the last surviving participant in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the U.S. government’s 40-year study of the effects of untreated syphilis on a group of black men in rural Macon County, Ala., has died.

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A lawsuit filed on behalf of the men by Tuskegee attorney Fred Gray resulted in a $9-million settlement, and then-President Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the U.S. government in 1997.

But the damage left a legacy of distrust that extends far beyond Tuskegee: A December survey showed that 40% of Black people nationwide said they wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccination. Such hesitancy is more entrenched than among white residents, even though Black Americans have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus.

The Chicago-based Black nationalist group Nation of Islam is warning members with an online presentation titled “Beyond Tuskegee: Why Black People Must Not Take the Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine.”

Gray, now 90 and still practicing law in Tuskegee, rejects such comparisons. The syphilis study and the COVID-19 vaccine are completely different, he said. He is confident enough to have gotten vaccinated himself and is publicly encouraging others to do the same.

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With black Americans getting the coronavirus at high rates, officials are fighting a legacy of mistrust of doctors going back to the Tuskegee Experiment.

Georgette Moon is on a similar mission. Hoping both to protect herself and encourage skittish friends, the former city council member recently bared an arm and let a public health nurse immunize her. Now, Moon said, if only more fellow Black residents would overcome their lingering fears and follow suit.

“The [syphilis] study is a huge factor,” Moon said. “I’ve had very qualified, well-educated people tell me they are not going to take it right now.”

The Macon County health department, which is administering two-step Moderna vaccines in its modern building near downtown Tuskegee, could perform as many as 160 immunizations a day, officials said. But a maximum of 140 people received the vaccine on any single day during the first six days of appointments, with a total of 527 people immunized during the period. Healthcare workers, emergency responders and long-term care residents are currently eligible for shots in Alabama, along with people 75 and older.

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There are some signs of hope. State statistics show a slow uptick in the number of people coming in for vaccinations, and word seems to be filtering through the community that it’s OK to be inoculated.

Down the street from the county clinic, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tuskegee is vaccinating veterans 65 and older. Although only 40% of the VA workers in the area have been inoculated, officials said, more people are agreeing to the shots than during the initial wave.

“They know people who have had the vaccine, they hear more about it, they become more comfortable with it,” said Dr. April Truett, an infectious-disease physician at the hospital.

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The Rev. John Curry Jr. said he and his wife took the shots after the health department said they could get appointments without a long wait. The pastor of the oldest Black church in town, Curry said he is encouraging congregants to get vaccinated.

Yet he said he also understands the power of lingering distrust in a town that will forever be linked to the syphilis study, one of the most reviled episodes in U.S. public health history.

“It’s a blemish on Tuskegee,” he said. “It hangs on the minds of people.”


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