Black doctors bravely battle COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

"It's no accident that Black folks have found ourselves having to swim through mountains of disinformation or intentionally false information," Dr. Rhea Boyd tells theGrio about the COVID-19 pandemic atmosphere.

Dr. Rhea Boyd knows the cost of speaking out in favor of COVID-19 vaccinations. For each tweet to her 47,000 Twitter followers, the pediatrician and public health advocate may face a cloud of suspicion, misinformation, and even trolling.

A tweet she posted earlier this summer offered helpful information to parents concerned about the Delta variant: “COVID is surging, kids are returning to school and parents are not okay. So the pediatricians are back…to answer your questions!” 

A health worker gives a man a shot of the Jenssen COVID-19 vaccine from the Johnson & Johnson -
A health worker gives a man a shot of the Jenssen COVID-19 vaccine from the Johnson & Johnson. (Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

A strange account with a cartoon avatar stood ready to pounce with clown-faced emojis and a harsh message: “Sellouts to Babylon” 

The resistance doesn’t stop her from speaking truth, but she can’t ignore the ways in which disinformation harms her community.

“It feels personal, it feels targeted, and I know from our own research that it is targeted,” Dr. Boyd tells theGrio. “It’s no accident that Black folks have found ourselves having to swim through mountains of disinformation or intentionally false information.”

Research from earlier this year shows that 1 in 4 doctors are attacked and harassed on social media in the era of COVID-19. According to the American Medical Association, 96% of U.S. doctors are vaccinated, meaning that the majority who advocate vaccination are actually practicing what they preach. While many of these doctors who are on #medtwitter have gotten their share of threats and harassment, for Black doctors who are trying to reach their own vulnerable communities the pushback is particularly sharp.

“Many of us know people who have either been sick with covid or die with COVID. And so for those of us who are health care providers, we’re not immune,” says Dr. Oni Blackstock, an HIV doctor and the founder of Health Justice.

Dr. Oni Blackstock, Dr. Utibe Essien and Dr. Rhea Boyd
Dr. Oni Blackstock, Dr. Utibe Essien, and Dr. Rhea Boyd (Courtesy of Blackstock, Essien, and Greater Than COVID YouTube screenshot)

In an interview with theGrio, Dr. Blackstock said she’d been falsely accused by other social media users of being paid by the government or pharmaceutical companies after advocating for COVID-19 vaccination. 

“All the work that I do is all just mission-driven, purpose-driven. It’s what I want to do for my community,” says Dr. Blackstock.

According to a study about online conspiracies on Twitter, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, people tend to believe the first message they encounter. Tweets with misinformation tend to have more negative messaging around them.

“It’s exhausting to have to constantly counter all of this disinformation and some of the misinformation -the ways that we repeat that disinformation to each other kind of informally,” says Dr. Boyd. “

Black doctors remain a minority in a field of medicine, comprising only approximately 5.4% of doctors in the U.S., despite the Black people making up 13% of the population, which makes their efforts to reach Black communities even harder. 

“These past 18 months have been pretty horrific for all of us as physicians,” Dr. Utibe Essien tells theGrio of working through the COVID-19 era.

Dr. Essien is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and a racial equity researcher, is one of the 5%, and also the son of a physician, who is treating patients in COVID hotspots. While he’s never been targeted online for advocating for COVID-19 vaccination, he sees the toll of COVID-19 both personally and professionally.

“I worry about my family and how they commute to work every day and the exposures that they can get,” he says.

“My hope was that getting folks who look like myself and my colleagues who are doing this work would finally be able to push us over the edge to get our communities the health care they need. So getting some of that upfront was a little bit of a shock to me.”

But Dr. Essien says he understands why the mistrust exists, pointing to disparities in healthcare access for Black communities.

“When I did the work of trying to understand why some communities have this perspective … it really made me realize that this wasn’t about me,” he says.

Bible-Based Fellowship Church In Tampa Offers Covid Vaccinations
Pastor Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church encourages more people from the African American community to receive the vaccine. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

All of the doctors interviewed for this story point to a history of systemic racism and a lack of quality healthcare as the main reason for medical mistrust.

Dr. Blackstock believes that the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic also played a role in planting seeds of doubt.

“We had an administration, the previous administration, which helped to also undermine a number of public health efforts and also engender a lot of mistrust,” she says.

(Photo: Getty Images)

While former President Donald Trump both mocked mask usage and personally attacked CDC officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Blackstock says the reason for distrust in the Black community is bigger than any one administration.

“We get these mixed messages from our government, our society,” Dr. Blackstock tells theGrio. “The government is saying, ‘OK, everyone should get vaccinated, everyone needs to stay safe.’ But we don’t even have, Medicare for all…health care for all.”

Dr. Boyd says tackling both misinformation and disinformation spread by bad faith actors like anti-vaccination groups is key, but also points to larger systemic change as a solution.

“I became a doctor because I really cared about the health and well-being of my Black community. I love black folks and I know that we don’t get a fair end of the stick when it comes to health care,” she says.

“I’m hoping now that we almost have about a year under our belt of the vaccination effort that people will have heard from enough sources, where all of that information stacks on itself and builds your confidence that these vaccines are incredibly safe and really one of the best tools we have to end the pandemic.”

Natasha S. Alford is the VP of Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.

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