Vaccine skepticism lurks in town famous for syphilis study

The coronavirus immunization campaign is off to a shaky start in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Posted: Feb 1, 2021 1:01 PM

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) — Lucenia Dunn spent the early days of the coronavirus pandemic encouraging people to wear masks and keep a safe distance from each other in Tuskegee, a mostly Black city where the government once used unsuspecting African American men as guinea pigs in a study of a sexually transmitted disease.

Now, the onetime mayor of the town immortalized as the home of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study” is wary of getting inoculated against COVID-19. Among other things, she's suspicious of the government promoting a vaccine that was developed in record time when it can't seem to conduct adequate virus testing or consistently provide quality rural health care.

“I’m not doing this vaccine right now. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to do it. But I know enough to withhold getting it until we see all that is involved,” said Dunn, who is Black.

The coronavirus immunization campaign is off to a shaky start in Tuskegee and other parts of Macon County. Area leaders point to a resistance among residents spurred by a distrust of government promises and decades of failed health programs. Many people in this city of 8,500 have relatives who were subjected to unethical government experimentation during the syphilis study.

“It does have an impact on decisions. Being in this community, growing up in this community, I would be very untruthful if I didn’t say that,” said Frank Lee, emergency management director in Macon County. Lee is Black.

Health experts have stressed both the vaccines' safety and efficacy. They have noted that while the vaccines were developed with record-breaking speed, they were based on decades of prior research. Vaccines used in the U.S. have shown no signs of serious side effects in studies of tens of thousands of people. And with more than 26 million vaccinations administered in the U.S. alone so far, no red flags have been reported.

Tuskegee is not a complete outlier. A recent survey conducted by the communications firm Edelman revealed that as of November, only 59% of people in the U.S. were willing to get vaccinated within a year with just 33% happy to do so as soon as possible.

But skepticism seems to run deeper here.

When Alabama and the rest of the South were still segregated by race, government medical workers starting in 1932 withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with syphilis in Tuskegee and surrounding Macon County so physicians could track the disease. The study, which involved about 600 men, ended in 1972 only after it was revealed by The Associated Press.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the men by Black Tuskegee attorney Fred Gray resulted in a $9 million settlement, and then-President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the U.S. government in 1997. But the damage left a legacy of distrust that extends far beyond Tuskegee: A December survey showed 40% of Black people nationwide said they wouldn’t get the coronavirus vaccine. Such hesitancy is more entrenched than among white people, even though Black Americans have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus.

The Chicago-based Black nationalist group Nation of Islam is warning away members nationwide with an online presentation titled “Beyond Tuskegee: Why Black People Must Not Take The Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine.”

Gray, now 90 and still practicing law in Tuskegee, rejects such comparisons. The syphilis study and the COVID-19 vaccine are completely different, he said. He believes that enough that he himself has gotten the vaccine and is publicly encouraging others to do the same.

Georgette Moon is on a similar mission. Hoping to both protect herself and encourage skittish friends, the former city council member recently bared an arm and let a public health nurse immunize her. Now, Moon said, if only more fellow Black residents could overcome their lingering fears and get the vaccine.

“The study is a huge factor,” Moon said. “I’ve had very qualified, well-educated people tell me they are not going to take it right now.”

The Macon County health department, which is administering two-step Moderna vaccines in its modern building near downtown, could perform as many as 160 immunizations a day, officials said. But a maximum of 140 people received the vaccine on any single date during the first six days of appointments, with a total of 527 people immunized during the period. Health care workers, emergency responders and long-term care residents are currently eligible for shots in Alabama, along with people 75 and older.

There are some signs of hope. State statistics show a slow uptick in the number of people coming in for vaccinations, and word seems to be filtering through the community that it’s OK to be vaccinated.

Down the street from the county clinic, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tuskegee is vaccinating veterans 65 and older. While only 40% of the VA workers in the area have been vaccinated, officials said, more people are agreeing to the shots than during the initial wave.

“They know people who have had the vaccine, they hear more about it, they become more comfortable with it,” said Dr. April Truett, an infectious disease physician at the hospital.

The Rev. John Curry Jr. said he and his wife took the shots after the health department said they could get appointments without a long wait. The pastor of the oldest Black church in town, Curry said he is encouraging congregants to get the vaccine.

Yet he said he also understands the power of lingering distrust in a town that will forever be linked to the syphilis study, one of the most reviled episodes of U.S. public health history.

“It’s a blemish on Tuskegee,” he said. "It hangs on the minds of people.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 308111

Reported Deaths: 7122
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20826248
Hinds19910411
Harrison17510302
Rankin13334276
Jackson13118243
Madison9908210
Lee9871170
Jones8297160
Forrest7525147
Lauderdale7198237
Lowndes6272144
Lamar611084
Lafayette6039117
Washington5281133
Bolivar4772129
Oktibbeha455897
Panola4445103
Pearl River4428141
Warren4284118
Marshall4276100
Pontotoc416972
Monroe4061132
Union403975
Neshoba3994176
Lincoln3871109
Hancock372885
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329589
Tate322782
Pike3188104
Scott310872
Yazoo304468
Alcorn298065
Itawamba297177
Copiah293265
Coahoma289778
Simpson288284
Tippah284868
Prentiss275759
Marion266079
Leake261373
Wayne261341
Grenada255384
Covington254780
Adams246082
Newton245161
George238147
Winston225981
Tishomingo222267
Jasper219748
Attala213473
Chickasaw205057
Holmes186872
Clay182854
Stone179331
Clarke177076
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163531
Yalobusha159236
Smith158834
Walthall130643
Greene129433
Lawrence126423
Noxubee126233
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120926
Amite120141
Webster113532
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102725
Claiborne101330
Benton97325
Kemper95428
Humphreys94332
Franklin82123
Quitman78916
Choctaw73417
Wilkinson64928
Jefferson64828
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 520503

Reported Deaths: 10722
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754091487
Mobile38938798
Madison33898495
Tuscaloosa25297443
Montgomery23992567
Shelby23124239
Baldwin20652300
Lee15541165
Calhoun14301311
Morgan14145270
Etowah13665346
Marshall11967219
Houston10381278
Elmore10001200
Limestone9822147
Cullman9481188
St. Clair9435234
Lauderdale9223227
DeKalb8748181
Talladega8071171
Walker7100275
Jackson6762110
Autauga6734103
Blount6497135
Colbert6210130
Coffee5404112
Dale4766110
Russell429038
Franklin419982
Chilton4087109
Covington4056114
Tallapoosa3898146
Escambia388574
Dallas3531149
Chambers3503122
Clarke346560
Marion3066100
Pike305876
Lawrence295395
Winston272572
Bibb256459
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens233059
Barbour225255
Hale218775
Butler212566
Fayette209260
Henry187744
Cherokee182144
Randolph176941
Monroe172040
Washington164238
Macon154848
Clay149555
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146241
Lamar139334
Lowndes136553
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109128
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99328
Greene91034
Choctaw58724
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