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Vaccine hesitancy and health disparities: How we got here and what we can do about it

UAlbany research provides a roadmap for New York and other states as COVID-19 vaccination ramps up.


Is that hope we feel?

The arrival of several effective COVID-19 vaccines is cause for celebration. Our timelines are filled with photos of frontline workers and people over 65 getting their first and second doses, offering a glimpse of a brighter future we haven’t seen since before the pandemic.

But key to that bright future is making sure no New Yorkers are left behind.

In University at Albany’s recently issued white paper, researchers detail varying reasons for vaccine hesitancy and offer solutions to address hesitancy and mitigate health disparities in minority communities — both key to moving beyond this pandemic. We recommend giving the paper a thorough read. If you haven’t yet, here are a few key takeaways we gleaned.

How we got here

Vaccine hesitancy exists for many reasons, and goes well beyond COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy occurs, to some extent, with all vaccines. Some of that hesitancy stems from justified distrust of the medical community based on past treatment of minority groups, like the Tuskegee syphilis study, and other health disparities that continue to this day. Other reasons are rooted in distrust of the government, cultural and religious beliefs, lack of access to healthcare and safety concerns.

One size does not fit all. Strategies and messaging need to be tailored to address varying individual and community-wide concerns.

The need is urgent. The fatality rate from COVID-19 among Black and Hispanic New Yorkers is as much as four times greater than white New Yorkers. Ensuring equitable vaccination and addressing hesitancy among these communities is a matter of life and death.

What we can do about it

Collaborate early and often. Communities of color need to be a part of the process — from vaccine trials to town halls to the administration of vaccines. Distrust didn’t suddenly appear overnight, and it won’t go away that quickly either.

Provide accurate information. There’s an information overload about COVID-19 vaccines, and much of what is circulating on social media is inaccurate. Public information campaigns must be implemented to provide basic information on the vaccines — why they work and how they were developed so quickly are good starting points.

Honesty is the best policy. Don’t sugarcoat the side effects of vaccine doses. Honestly portray possible short-term side effects while messaging the benefits of the vaccine outweighing the risk of disease.

The messenger matters. Whether it’s a family doctor, community leader or neighbor, hearing from a trusted source can make a big difference. Find these trusted partners within communities and amplify their voices.

Reach out to people via their world perspective. Use linguistic and culturally appropriate messages in multiple languages, reaching out to communities through a diverse set of communication channels.

Address concerns head on. Whether it’s concern over the speed of development, safety, potential side effects or dispelling myths, community member concerns should be addressed directly, without judgment.

The end of this pandemic could be in sight. But how fast we get there and how many more lives are lost along the way will depend on actions taken now. If we mitigate health disparities and address vaccine hesitancy, we can begin to forge a path to a healthier future for all New Yorkers.


Learn more: HANYS is partnering with UAlbany on a monthly series focused on understanding and eliminating health disparities. Visit our series website to view recordings of past sessions and register for upcoming webinars.

HANYS is proud to have been the Primary Institutional Partner for this research. While some key points were highlighted here, they’re not a complete representation of the work. Please read UAlbany’s paper, “Strategies to Counter COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy and Mitigate Health Disparities in Minority Populations,” to learn more.