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Kelly Adirondack Center Discussion Focuses On Reasons For BIPOC Vaccine Hesitancy In The Adirondacks

View of Adirondacks from Lake Placid
Pat Bradley/WAMC
View of Adirondacks from Lake Placid (file)

The Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College has been holding a series of virtual conversations on social justice issues in the Adirondack Park. It culminated Thursday with a discussion on “The Color of COVID” in the Park: an assessment of vaccine hesitancy among residents of color in the region.

The Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College is renowned for its Adirondack Research Center, which includes historical and scientific data on the Park.

Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Dr. Nicole Hylton Patterson serves on the New York state Equity Vaccine Task Force and the North Country Health Equity Task Force. She has taught courses on experimentation and exploitation of People of Color and finds current vaccine hesitancy can be traced back to historical medical experimentation and eugenics. 

“Some significant moments in history were medical exploitation on Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities and well as low income people were very very prevalent and extreme," Hylton Patterson said. "And this has led to and is a large basis for vaccine hesitancy within these communities. All of those ideas about the human body have come out of the pseudoscience of phrenology, eugenics and those ideas become systemic racism when they’re incorporated and turned into policies and laws. And these policies and laws often impact who gets the vaccine, where vaccine is distributed, how vaccine access is communicated etc. And that is what the Health Equity Task Force in the North Country is here to deal with.”

Sierra Club past president Aaron Mair notes that the early environmental movement which led to the protection of the Adirondacks is intertwined with the eugenics movement and still impacts how some populations approach the COVID vaccine. 

“A lot of the modern eugenics movement is anchored in with the naturalist field," Mair said. "We saw one of the consequences when denoting and classifying people, flora and fauna in terms of superior and inferior species. So it is interesting that something as important as the naturalist field and natural movement and the environmental movement in its early 19th and early 20th century antecedents was a core pillar in what would become the classification the pseudoscientific classification of race and racial purity which has led and still drives a lot of the conversations today.”

Another factor leading to hesitancy is the political diversity across the region. Dr. Hylton Patterson says voting patterns appear to correlate with unwillingness to get the vaccine. 

“There’s no solid data but if you’re looking anecdotally or at rhetoric I believe it would be fair to say that those on the far right politically are less willing to take the vaccine," said Hylton Patterson.

Dr. Hylton Patterson is working with seven vaccine hubs and the North Country Vaccine Equity Task Force. The goal include ensuring widespread equity, developing a regional plan, and creating a task force to pay special attention to BIPOC and low-income residents of the region. Dr. Patterson outlined their outreach to vulnerable populations, also including the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Amish, and migrant farmworkers. 

“My job is to focus on these communities," Hylton Patterson said. "To build relationships. To identify gatekeepers who can then work with the different vaccine hubs to make sure that our approaches are culturally sensitive and are effective at reaching the North Country. Because we know that the North Country’s population is largely rural, largely white, large pockets of poverty, dense poverty. So we have lots of challenges.”   

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