Posts • September 8, 2021

St. Louis NAACP President Urges Black Community Not to “Throw Away Their Shot”

COVID-19 cases in the United States are once again ticking upward. Across the country in vaccine-hesitant communities, the number of people testing positive for the disease continues to increase. In St. Louis County, where less than half of the population is vaccinated, the positivity rate has increased in the last few weeks, peaking at 331 cases a day.

There are a number of reasons why people are hesitant to get the vaccine, including mistrust in the vaccine’s efficacy, limited access, and doubt that we need the vaccine to return to normal. To date, only 21 percent of St. Louis County’s Black population has been fully vaccinated. But leaders in the community like John Bowman, St. Louis County NAACP president, are trying to change that. 

Below is an interview with Mr. Bowman that highlights why he got the vaccine and how he’s encouraging others who look like him to get their doses.

What are you seeing on the ground in terms of vaccinations in the Black community in St. Louis County?

I am extremely concerned about getting more shots in people’s arms, but I also recognize that there is a layer of distrust within the Black community about the vaccine. This isn’t only medical distrust based on the Tuskegee Experiment, but institutional distrust. Distrust because of Ahmaud Arbery or Michael Brown. It’s layered issues like this that have created distrust in the Black community that then filters over to how the community is addressing COVID-19. All in all, it’s affecting whether or not we get vaccinated.  

What do you believe are the biggest barriers to access to the vaccine for the Black community in St. Louis County?

It’s the fact that the community has limited access to transportation to get to the sites, lack of daycare, or being unable to take off work. This could be solved through grassroots efforts because I think more people in St. Louis County would be willing to get the shots if they had access to it. We need to go door to door with factual information, stories and insights about the vaccine’s side effects and how it’s helped get us back to normal. Another aspect could be setting up mobile testing sites for people to easily access without having to go to an unattainable area of the county. 

We’ve got to put more of an effort into meeting people where they are. Whether that’s setting up mobile appointments for times that make it easy for working folks to get their shot or ensuring more folks are made aware of the benefits of the vaccine. We need to just get a little bit closer to focusing on how we can make this as convenient as possible, and remove whatever appears to be a barrier from the Black community to getting those shots.

As we talk about access, what do you think could be done to encourage more people to get vaccinated? Do you still think that there’s a chance to change people’s minds?

It’s important to simplify the conversation to a conversation that goes something like, “My name is John Bowman, I’m the President of NAACP and I’ve received a vaccination against COVID-19. This is why I feel more comfortable returning to normal life and I love knowing I’m protecting not only myself, but also my family.”

We have to bring the conversation down from 32,000 feet to ground level and just really talk to people one on one. Let them have their questions. Let them have their discomfort without making it a conversation where you’re demanding they do it, but just showing them the benefit of doing it. The Delta variant is posing an even more frightening risk to our community which is why it’s imperative we have the right people bringing this conversation up to them. And we have to have the right people bringing that conversation to them. Black medical professionals could really help us out with delivering this message as well as political leaders who are trusted in public, leaders of organizations, school teachers, principals, and other people who interact daily with community members.

As the president of NAACP St. Louis County, how can community organizations also play a role in ensuring their communities get the vaccine?

I can really only speak to the NAACP. We do tremendous work when it comes to voter registration. That’s our space.  We’re also very good at making contact with members of our community, which for vaccine awareness is a great thing. For organizations like ours, there needs to be a ground operation to physically interact with community members and raise awareness or provide factual information about the vaccine. Answering questions, taking time to really have a straightforward conversation, and letting them vent out whatever it is that’s keeping them from getting their vaccines and do the best as we can to provide them with not only verbal relief on their questions, but also a brochure or some type of information that validates that with facts.

How has getting the vaccine changed your life?

I still wear my mask in places where there are a large number of people, but I have had the opportunity to be around my family this past holiday who are all vaccinated and I felt comfortable not wearing a mask. Now — more than I have in a long time — I am willing to interact with people as long as I feel like they are vaccinated with the same ease I would have before COVID-19.

Since being fully inoculated, I’ve participated in a golf tournament where I felt comfortable interacting with people without a mask on. I could tell that everyone around me was feeling more comfortable because of their vaccinations. And we all understand it’s not like the magic bullet, but it does give us some cover and protection that we did not have previously.

Pfizer recently announced that 12 to 15-year-olds can get the vaccine.  Do you think your younger family members, children, or other extended family will receive the vaccine once available? 

Yeah, I would be encouraging that. Of course with any product we want it to be thoroughly vetted, but when the opportunity becomes available I’ll be strongly encouraging the younger folks in my family to get their shot. There are still older people in our family, including me, who I know they love dearly and they want to do their part to make sure that I’m okay. And I want to make sure they’re okay, so I will definitely be encouraging my grandchildren to get their vaccination. My son and my daughters already have theirs.

Is there anything else you’d want the Black community to know about the vaccine? 

We have to combat the misinformation and really think in terms of the fact that our community has been attacked with healthcare disparities at an alarming rate for many years. We can see how the states and communities who are more likely to take the vaccine have benefited and we should take that into account. 

I would like to be clear, when the vaccine was first made available I had a tremendous amount of questions. But since that time, I have seen the positive results with my own eyes. Look at the risk you’re putting yourself in by not getting the vaccine as opposed to the rightful mistrust you may feel against our institutions. With this vaccine you can save your life and your family’s life as opposed to the risk of losing someone you love. 

We’ve seen 600,000 people die because of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, some people have become numb to this because it’s such a large number, but when it affects you personally, as it has with my family, the reality is that this is not just an evening news story or a random conversation. There’s someone who was sitting at your dinner table last year that’s not there now, and we can prevent that. 

Let’s pull together on this one and trust the advice of Black medical professionals urging the vaccine. Let’s trust the CDC. But more so than that, look around you and see the change from where we are now compared to where we were last year with COVID-19. In the words of my favorite musical Hamilton, “Don’t throw away your shot.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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