If Robert Collins were to contract COVID-19, he doesn’t think he could survive it.

He’s 71 years old and has diabetes and high blood pressure — all conditions that are prone to severe and potentially fatal outcomes if a person becomes infected with the coronavirus.

Collins, a Leflore County supervisor, is scheduled to get his second dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines this coming week. He’s expecting that it will provide him the protection to survive the pandemic.

It troubles him, though, that other African Americans appear to be waiting it out before committing to being vaccinated.

As of Thursday, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health, of the 316,000 shots delivered to people in this state whose race was known, just 20% were received by Blacks. It should be double that if the rate of inoculation mirrored the overall black population.

The racial breakdown of vaccination in Leflore County has not been readily obtainable. Anecdotally, however, Collins said he suspects it would show a similar pattern. When he has visited the drive-through site in Leflore County where vaccinations are being given, he estimates that roughly 70% of those waiting in line were white and 30% were black.

If so, that doesn’t bode well for this community, with such a large black population, reaching herd immunity anytime soon and returning to a sense of normalcy. Health experts have said it will take somewhere between 60% and 90% of people to have acquired immunity either through inoculation or infection to wipe out the virus. Lately they have been saying the ratio is closer to 90% than 60%.

Even if white inoculation rates were at 100% in Leflore County, that still would require roughly two-thirds of Black residents to be vaccinated to approach an overall 75% inoculation rate.

It’s been speculated that the reasons are twofold as to why Black participation has lagged: lack of access and a history of past racist medical practices, the most notorious example of which was the 20th century Tuskegee Study, in which hundreds of Black men with syphilis were allowed to go untreated for decades so researchers could track the natural progression of the sexually transmitted disease.

Collins thinks a lingering distrust of being used again as “guinea pigs” might be the main factor for the initially low Black response to COVID-19 vaccination. Fred Randle, the county’s emergency management director, believes the problem is more an issue of vaccine availability.

Even though the drive-through site at Florewood Park is averaging 500 inoculations a day, three or four days a week, it’s not just serving Leflore County residents. People from all over the state are scheduling appointments there, as long as they are willing and able to make the drive. That leaves locals of all races jockeying in a crowded field for a limited number of spots.

“It’s just hard to get the appointments,” said Randle, who is also Black and has received his first dose of the vaccine.

Last week’s opening of a vaccination site at Greenwood’s Walmart should help with access, although there are issues there, too, since all reservations for the discount giant’s allocation of serum have to be made online. That cuts out people who don’t have internet access, which again is disproportionately a problem for Blacks.

In order to increase Black vaccination rates, Mississippi is going to have to get the vaccine into more places that have regular interaction with Black residents, such as doctor’s offices, clinics and hospitals.

In Leflore County, Greenwood Leflore Hospital would be an ideal locale. The hospital has said it would be a vaccination site for the general public once the Department of Health gives it the supply of vaccines to do so. Unlike some doctor’s offices that might not have the freezers to store the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at the low temperatures they require, the Greenwood hospital already has all of that equipment. It could operate its own drive-by site, similar to the COVID testing operation it has been running so smoothly across the street from its main facility.

In the meantime, it’s important for the Black leadership in all parts of this community to be encouraging vaccines. The message should be that there’s a whole lot more to fear from not getting the shots than getting them.

Collins has been talking up the vaccines to the leery he comes across, telling them that they need to do their part as Americans to get this pandemic behind the country. If an appeal to altruism or patriotism doesn’t work, he resorts to trying to make them ponder a practical benefit.

“I can’t see anyone wanting to wear a mask for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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