State rep., Detroit health official combat COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

State Rep. Tyrone Carter is a COVID-19 survivor, although he said he hasn't come out of his battle with the virus unscathed. 

Carter, a Democrat from Detroit, fell ill with coronavirus in the spring of 2020 and said it left him with some "long-haul" issues, including high blood pressure for the first time.

"This is something that is really personal to me and to my community, because we were disproportionately impacted and are still being infected by this," Carter said Thursday of the virus during a Facebook Live event on efforts to decrease vaccine hesitancy among African Americans. 

State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, is working to combat COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in Detroit. Carter was infected with the virus in the spring of 2020 and said he still has "long haul" issues, including high blood pressure for the first time.

"I was fortunate to have a full recovery, minus the high blood pressure," he added. "Many others were not, which makes today's dialog that much more important. I've lost many friends to this, and still haven't taken their phone numbers out of my cell phone."

The event, "Building COVID-19 Vaccine Confidence in Detroit's Black Community," was moderated by Karyne Jones of the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project, and featured Carter, who represents Detroit's 6th District and Yolanda Hill-Ashford, director of public health programs for the Detroit Health Department. 

Carter and Hill-Ashford are working to increase confidence in COVID-19 vaccines in Detroit, where vaccination rates continue to lag. About 45% of Detroit residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared with 67.7% of the statewide population.

Hill-Ashford, who runs Detroit's COVID-19 engagement and education programs, said the city of Detroit has employed strategies to ease doubts about the vaccine and increase access to shots in neighborhoods. 

"There's a lot of work to be done — we need to reach that 70%," she said of the COVID-19 vaccination goal set for the United States by President Joe Biden in May, which many health leaders believe is necessary to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus.

Detroit is providing gift cards to people who can transport neighbors to get vaccinated, and has sent vaccination teams out to 29 homeless shelters and six senior apartment complexes. 

They city has also brought mobile vaccination clinics to Belle Isle, community events and other places where people gather. And they've held multiple town halls to target Spanish and Arabic communities, and other groups such as barber and beauty salons.

Detroit's Health Department also has worked with churches to launch "Senior Saturday" clinics and partnered with the Detroit Public Schools Community District to work with sports teams to reach students and parents.

"We launched a door-knocking campaign in the city of Detroit to give people the information face-to-face," Hill-Ashford added. "We were able to answer questions and point people in the right direction in terms of where to go. The city, she said, also launched in-home vaccinations in June. 

Carter noted that African Americans are often reluctant to trust medical professionals or the scientific community, including in Detroit where 79.1% of the population is Black, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Statewide, 34.23% of Black residents have initiated vaccination, compared with 45.8% of non-Hispanic whites, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And 38.7% of Black people have completed vaccination, compared with 48.8% of non-Hispanic whites. 

Carter said the pandemic has highlighted "continuing inequities" in society and the health care system that disproportionately affect people of color.

"The hesitancy is related to the historical treatment or mistreatment at the hands of other to the Black community," he said. "Those are long-standing issues that have been passed down through generations, that we have to combat with proper information.

"Only then can we move forward and meet them where they are," he said. "We have to get trusted voices, someone like me — I live and I work and I grew up in the community that I represent."

As of Wednesday, Michigan has had 1,002,575 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 20,998 deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020. 

Detroit has recorded 57,087 confirmed cases and 7,998 deaths.

Carter, Hill-Ashford and Jones said it's critical to combat misinformation that circulates on the internet and spreads by word-of-mouth, such as the idea that the vaccines don't work. 

"Look at the beginning of the pandemic and without a vaccination available how many people died," Hill-Ashford said. "Now with this new variant, vaccinations are our greatest tool."

For information about vaccines in Detroit, call (313) 230-0505.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN