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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated Apartments; Wigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America. WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds. Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

Mistrust Contributes To Lower COVID-19 Vaccinations In The Black Community

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About 9.5 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the state of Illinois and a little over 4 million individuals are fully vaccinated, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. But the numbers show a huge discrepancy between whites and Blacks.

About 65 percent of Illinoisans who are fully vaccinated are white. That tracks pretty closely with their share of the state’s overall population. Blacks, on the other hand, make up close to 15 percent of the state’s residents, but account for less than nine percent of those who are fully vaccinated. That’s about half of what you’d expect, just based on demographics. Some say that's because many Blacks are reluctant to get the shots.

Shondra Loggins Clay is an assistant professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Health Professions at Northern Illinois University. 

She said vaccine hesitancy isn’t unique to the Black community but there is more skepticism from this group. 

“Because of the historical context," she explained. "And the larger issues that we see in the healthcare system today, such as like the inequities and health disparities in health and health outcomes.” 

She said some people of color have mistrust because of things like the Tuskegee Experiment, where Black men were allowed to suffer and even die from syphilis – a treatable disease – to satisfy the curiosity of white medical researchers. There’s also the Henrietta Lacks story. Lacks died from cervical cancer, but her cancerous cells were used for research without her permission. 

Clay said that addressing this hesitancy is all about the messaging -- and not so much about trying to convince people to take the vaccine.  

Cordell Hunter is a Black northern Illinois entrepreneur. He is against taking the vaccine and said he doesn’t trust it because of systemic racism. He said his white counterparts don’t have that same mistrust so they are more open to receiving the injection.

“I believe that a white person would believe the government before -- I mean, they have more reason to believe than I do," he said. "And so it’s like, they didn’t pick a group of white folks to experiment with Tuskegee.” 

Joe Grisson III is the chairman of Aurora Housing Authority Board of Commissions. He’s also Black. 

When he first heard about the vaccine, he wasn’t anxious about getting it right away. He originally decided to revisit the notion once summer hit.  

“I think it was a combination of things. It was a little bit of mistrust or distrust,” Grisson explained. “But then also the name for me, just bothered me, the ‘Operation Warp Speed.’” 

Grisson said he also thought about the Tuskegee Experiment, but the more research he did, the closer he came to a decision.  

“Talked to a plethora of friends. I got friends that are, you know, in the health field, from pharmaceutical sales to pharmacists, to doctors -- you name it,” he explained. “And it wasn't until I talked to all of them and got their reassurance that I felt there was a level of comfort.” 

Grisson said another factor that swayed him was the fact that a few people close to him contracted COVID-19 and passed away. But he said the major deciding factor was his underlying health condition.    

Grisson also said his wife showed him information about immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett and knowing that a Black woman was a part of creating the Moderna vaccine gave him reassurance. But Hunter said this fact doesn’t change his view.

“I mean, they always got somebody with a Black face to make announcements or ease the pain,” Hunter said. 

Hunter stated that he doesn’t think he will ever take the vaccine. In addition to his inital mistrust, he said a family member passed away a couple days after taking her first shot.

Grisson received the Moderna vaccine earlier this year. He is asking certain groups to think about their options.

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Credit Yvonne Boose
Black Vax event in Aurora, Illinois.

“If you are a minority, or you have an underlining health issue, I would strongly encourage you to do it, or at least take a stronger look into it," Grisson said.

Clay said everyone should do their research to decide what’s best for them. She recommends that people talk to their health care providers or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for accurate data.         

“And so, after you do your research, look within yourself and say, 'Is this something that I really want to do? And what are my reasons for doing it?,'" Clay said. "And I think with all of those different factors, you'll be able to make an informed decision for yourself."

She said that we can’t disregard the mistrust that some Black Americans have but forcing trust isn’t going to solve the issue. She said working on the system that may have caused this mistrust can be the beginning of the solution. She mentioned that a great starting point would be things like improving vaccine accessibility, equitable distribution and having cultural competence trainings for those providing healthcare to the Black community.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
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