The Health Divide: Is the media reporting on the booster rollout in communities of color?


by CHJ Fellow James Causey

As the COVID numbers continue to climb across the country, journalists should be paying close attention to how the latest information on infections and vaccines is perceived in communities of color. And if you don’t yet have sources in these communities, listening to the radio or print outlets serving these audiences is one of the best tools. 

In Milwaukee, where African Americans make up the largest demographic at 38% of the population, we have both talk radio stations and Black-owned newspapers that cater to urban voices. 

Tory Lowe, the voice of “The Tory Lowe Show” on 101.7 FM, sought to inform people about the latest vaccine booster earlier this month.  

Lowe, who is Black, urged listeners who chose to get boosted to continue good hygiene practices like handwashing. He also told people that if they are feeling sick, they should be isolated from others. 

But many of the callers on his show cited reasons they were against the vaccine. Some believed that the booster could make men sterile (not true), while others thought the shot caused people to have heart-related problems (very rare). Others fell prey to unchecked rumors and saw the vaccine as part of a budding political conspiracy: 

“We’ve seen this script before. They are running it back. This is nothing but a fear-mongering tactic. It worked perfectly for them before. They’re just trying to run it back on us again,” said Milwaukee community activist Elizabeth Brown. “Look at the timing. This comes right when they are trying to impeach Biden. He’s hoping this vaccine will make his impeachment go away.” 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants everyone who is eligible to get the new booster. Obviously not everyone is going to be persuaded, and comments like Brown’s are sober reminders of the challenges now facing public health offices. But as reporters, it’s our job to understand the concerns of those who might be on the fence. And that means casting a wide net to be sure the diversity of views in your community are portrayed. 

We are also responsible for ensuring that minority and disadvantaged populations are not excluded from the conversation. Our presence in this area could determine a person’s decision on getting the updated vaccine and their eventual health outcomes. 

Stories exploring why some people are against the vaccine — and including the relevant facts and scientific context — can help combat misinformation while simultaneously helping the public health community better grasp the challenges their latest booster campaign must face. 

How do communities near you view the latest booster?

Earlier this month, the CDC’s advisory panel recommended that everyone six months and older get the latest COVID-19 vaccine. 

As journalists, we aren’t the ones to decide whether someone should receive the latest booster or not. However, we are responsible for ensuring everyone —regardless of their beliefs — has the latest, most accurate vaccine information so people can make informed decisions. 

I caught COVID for the second time after attending the National Association of Black Journalists convention in August in Birmingham, Alabama. More than 4,000 journalists from all over the country attended seminars, forums, and job fairs over a week.  

There was no social distancing. Only a handful of people wore masks. 

Two days after I returned home, I received an email from another journalist I spent a lot of time with who tested positive. Several days after the email, I tested positive. 

My symptoms were not nearly as bad as when I had COVID in 2020. When I got sick, I had body aches for days that kept me in bed, and I temporarily lost my sense of taste. My latest COVID scare just left me with a nagging cough and headache. 

I received the first and second shots, and even got the previous booster. However, Kaiser Family Foundation data released in April shows that about 75% of people in the United States had skipped last year’s bivalent booster

According to the CDC, weekly COVID-19 hospital admissions had jumped from 6,480 nationally on July 1 to 20,539 by Sept. 9.

“It seems like we are in for another round of COVID. I hope it doesn’t impact Blacks and the poor like that first wave did,” said Milwaukee radio talk show host Earl Ingram Jr. 

“I will be 70 soon, and when I look around and see the numbers, I want to see where the science leads us. I trust scientists more than people on Facebook calling the latest vaccine ‘population control,’” Ingram said. 

Blacks and Hispanics have experienced higher rates of infections, extended hospital stays, and deaths compared to whites. 

Ingram knows the risks. He lost his father to COVID-19 in 2021.  

Racism plays a role 

When the first COVID wave hit and the vaccine was made available, political and government officials noticed that African Americans lagged in getting vaccinated compared to whites. 

As of May 10, 2023, only 51% of Blacks had received the first dose of the vaccine, only 45% received the second dose, and less than 10% received the booster dose. According to the CDC, these numbers are the lowest of all groups of people reported.  

Blacks had lower vaccination rates in part because fewer vaccine sites were located in Black neighborhoods, but also because of the mistrust of the government and past medical malpractice against people of color, like the horrible 1932 Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And racist beliefs about Blacks still persist today, as journalist Linda Villarosa chronicled for the 1619 project. Black psychologists say people of color struggled the most from COVID because of the racism woven into the fiber of America.

The stress of dealing with racial discrimination can weather the bodyand has been linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney or liver disease. When a person already has a preexisting condition, a virus like COVID-19 can worsen things. 

I lost two cousins in Mississippi from complications of COVID. Both were overweight and had high blood pressure. They were both also considered essential workers. One was a truck driver; the other worked in a meat packing facility.  

Both men were married fathers who were not only essential employees but also essential to their families. Now gone, their families are still struggling to move forward.  

Their deaths and those of more than a million other Americans should remind us that this massive story is still unfolding, and reporters would be wise to listen more to the experiences and fears of those communities hardest hit by this virus. 

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