On a recent Saturday in the NoDa area, Carolyn Williams waited in line at a CVS pharmacy, preparing to get her first coronavirus vaccination.

For nearly a year, she had resisted the idea of getting the shot. Like any number of reluctant Americans who have been labeled as “vaccine hesitant,” Williams, who is Black, was concerned that the shot might trigger unknown health effects.

But then, about a month ago, she got sick with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. She described the experience as “scary.”

Now waiting in line at the pharmacy, Williams said she was through taking chances.

“I just want to get the vaccine so I can be safe,” she told QCity Metro. “I got grandkids and kids.”

Williams, 57, may be emblematic of a quiet trend.

As health officials continue to stress the need for more Americans to get inoculated against Covid-19, and as more employers are demanding that workers get the shots, the vaccination gap that once separated Black Americans from their White counterparts is starting to close, health officials are reporting

In North Carolina, 44% of Black residents have now had at least one Covid-19 shot, according to data posted online by the state Department of Health and Human Services. That compares to 49% of White residents.

In other words, what was once a 10-point gap in earl April has now been cut in half.

Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

In Mecklenburg County, a 10-point gap still separated the two groups as of October 18.

Dr. Kristin Long-Witter, environmental health and safety director at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), said more Black residents may be getting vaccinated because of the growing number of mandates being enforced for employment and public activities.

Vaccination mandates have become especially prevalent in healthcare and government — two employment areas with high percentages of Black representation.

“People were making decisions based on politics versus the public health and the science behind it,” she said.

To help get more shots in arms, NCCU created a student-led mobile vaccination clinic that travels statewide sharing vaccine information and administering the shots to rural populations where the vaccines may not be easily accessible.

Long-Witter said Black Americans have long harbored a distrust of government, which has made vaccination messaging more difficult. She said the high-profile death of Colin L Powell, who died Monday from Covid-related health complications, may serve as a catalyst for some. (Powell, a retired four-star general and former U.S. secretary of state, was full vaccinated, according to published reports.)

“I do hope that people look at that and realize that this is real, this is a true pandemic and that, you know, vaccination is the way out,” she said.

A faith perspective

When Covid-19 first appeared in March 2020, the Rev. Ricky A. Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church-West, was a voice pushing county officials and local healthcare providers for more testing sites in Charlotte’s Black communities. His church later hosted at least six vaccination clinics, where mobile units administered shots to hundreds of people.

Woods said his congregation lost four of its members to Covid-19 before vaccines became available.

“There is a heightened awareness of just how dangerous Covid is to our congregation, just based on those experiences,” he said.

Like many Black churches in Charlotte, First Baptist Church-West has not returned to an in-person worship schedule. 

“We deal with so many disparity issues…from education to income to general health,” he said of Charlotte’s Black communities. “Closing the disparities in the vaccine speaks to the possibilities of what we can achieve.”

Although Woods has advocated strongly for vaccines, he said he also respects the decisions of those who decide otherwise.

“As a person of faith, I believe that God has created us as free moral agents with the right to choose, but with the understanding that we have to live with the consequences of those choices, ” he said. 

Encouraging community

Suzanne Henderson, founder of Bridge Builders Charlotte, an interfaith group that includes college students, said her members have fanned out in the Charlotte area to assist with various pandemic-related needs, including community events and vaccination clinics.

At the group’s most recent clinics, she said, she has seen a “very significant” increase in the number of Black residents coming to get vaccinations.

“Three to five times more people are getting the shots than when we first started setting up the clinics,” Henderson said.

She said Bridge Builders of Charlotte has worked to increase the vaccination rate by building trust in the communities it serves.

“Our strategy as an organization has been to work with trusted partners in communities where vaccination rates were lagging,” she said.

The Lionel Lee Jr. Center for Wellness, a Black-owned nonprofit center, has bee one of those “trusted partners.”

Sonja Lee, the center’s executive director, said her organization has partnered with local clergy and health organization to host community events, making the vaccine more accessible to Black residents.

Lee said some Black residents have decided to get vaccinated after seeing local leaders and peers getting the shots at those events. At the center’s most recent event, held in partnership with Bridge Builders Charlotte, about 20 Black residents get vaccinated – a record-high number for the center, she said.

“We’ve had it in an environment where people could look around and see people like themselves and have a level of trust that they were in a safe space,” Lee said.

Mary Jose Espinosa, a regional director for Healthier Together, a program that pushes to increase vaccination numbers in Blacks and Brown communities in North Carolina, said she, too, has seen more Black residents getting the shots.

Espinosa said she believes that the Delta variant — a more contagious strain of the coronavirus — may be pushing the numbers higher.

“Delta has more severe health consequences, and lots of people are contracting it that had previously not been sick,” she said. “ We have seen a rise in vaccination, and so we have seen that there is some closing of that gap.”

Espinosa said that providing vaccine information at familiar locations, such as laundromats and restaurants, has also helped her organization reach reluctant residents.

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