Washington taps pastors to overcome racial divide on vaccine

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In this Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, photo Wallace Charles Smith, 72, who is a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, receives his first COVID-19 vaccination by nurse Michelle Martin, at United Medical Center in southeast Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – Stately and deliberate, with a distinctive white streak in his black hair, the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith started his Valentine's Day sermon at Shiloh Baptist Church by talking about love and vaccinations.

“That's what love's all about. When you get a vaccination, you are saying to everyone around you that you love them enough that you don't want any hurt, harm or danger to befall them,” he said. “In the spirit of love, keep at it until you get your vaccination. That’s the only thing that’s going to erase this terrible scourge."

The church was empty except for a camera crew and a tiny choir. Thanks to COVID-19, Smith’s Sunday sermons are now virtual affairs.

Still, health officials in the nation's capital are hoping that Smith and other Black religious leaders will serve as community influencers to overcome what officials say is a persistent vaccine reluctance in the Black community. Smith and several other local ministers recently received their first vaccine shots.

Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths. The District of Columbia is now offering vaccinations to residents over age 65, but numbers show that seniors in the poorest and blackest parts of Washington are lagging behind.

Officials partially blame historic distrust of the medical establishment, especially among Black seniors, who vividly remember medical exploitation horrors such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, where hundreds of impoverished rural Black men suffered syphilis effects with minimal treatment for decades as part of the medical study.

“We know we need to focus on Black and brown communities,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, the director of the district's health department, said earlier this month. "Let’s not give up on communities of color being interested in the vaccine. Let’s continue to answer their questions. Let’s continue to be very thoughtful in how we answer their questions.”

The D.C. government is giving priority for vaccine registration to predominantly Black ZIP codes and running public information campaigns, including the clergy vaccinations. The latest numbers show the gap is narrowing, but the southeastern core of the city's Black community is still getting vaccinated at the slowest rate.