When COVID-19 vaccines were still in the trial stage last year, Chris Newberry was already hearing stories that some people didn't want the shots. On top of that, a trend started to emerge about certain demographics.
"And I kind of assumed that it was going to be maybe a 30-minute documentary about health care professionals talking about how important it is to get the vaccine,” he said. “And that is certainly in the film. But as I followed the stories, it turned into something more."
The more Newberry followed health care professionals around, the more stories he gathered about why people of color and Native American people were hesitant to get the vaccine. In the hourlong documentary “Trusted Messenger,” he interviewed folks in Minneapolis, Owatonna and from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
People told him about the historical trauma that persists following the Tuskegee experiment. For several decades, Black people with syphilis were left untreated as part of the study even after a drug was approved.
The film follows nurse Kelly Robinson as she works to convince people to get the vaccine. Robinson, who is the president of Black Nurses Rock, Twin Cities chapter, says many in the community have underlying health conditions that could make a COVID diagnosis severe.
"We are living in a time that's like no other. To be in it, to live through it and to see the numbers in terms of deaths, it's one of those things in my moments, it's painful,” said Robinson.
Recent data from the Minnesota Department of Health show new cases are rising among Black Minnesotans at a much higher rate than for other racial groups.
Immigrant communities also have unique vulnerabilities to the virus.
Some unauthorized immigrants don't have insurance, or the language skills to ask questions. Many are also at a higher risk of contracting the disease because of their work.
The film also highlights the efforts of health care workers who provide accurate information about the vaccine. They are the trusted messengers.
Iris De La Rosa is a nurse who works for Tri-Valley Opportunity Council's Migrant Head Start program. Some people originally from Central America don't question the vaccine because they're used to getting shots as children, she said. But others, who've never had the opportunity to access health care, tell her they don't see the point. De La Rosa said some are against it for religious reasons, and others feel like they have natural immunity.
"What I see a lot in the Hispanic community is just the waiting game,” said De La Rosa, adding that people are waiting to see how others who get vaccinated fare before taking it themselves. “It's just a lot of mistrust."
Newberry hopes the film inspires more people — beyond the health care profession — to connect with their communities and become trusted messengers as well.
"It's a story about vaccine hesitancy, but it's mostly about the people doing the work to turn the tide,” he said. “And bit by bit touch people and give them all the important information that they need to make the right choice about a very personal thing."
The film is a partnership between Newberry and Twin Cities PBS. A viewing and discussion are planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, at Riverview Theater in Minneapolis (space is limited due to COVID-19; reservations can be made here). Another opportunity to view the film is set for 1 p.m. at Wilson’s Image Barbers and Stylists in Minneapolis.
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