NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A public health expert at one of Tennessee’s historically black colleges and universities is working to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as cases of the delta variant are multiplying across the country.

According to the Tennessee Health Department, 30.8% of the Black population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Statewide, 46.4% of all Tennesseans fall into that category.

Many people expressed concern over the safety of the vaccine, but Tennessee State University Interim Public Health Program Director Dr. Wendelyn Inman said it’s not surprising.

“In looking at the history of public health, every time we get a new way to treat something – prevention is our middle name, a new technique of prevention or a source of prevention, we do have resistance,” Dr. Inman said. “The second reason is my great uncle Gus was in the Tuskegee study. So prevalent throughout my community, especially my family, is hesitancy to participate in anything that is novel, because we are concerned that we’re targeted specifically for negative outcomes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee in 1932 initially involved 600 Black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The men’s informed consent was not collected, and it’s one of the reasons for the distrust within the Black community. The CDC reports 25% of total U.S. vaccinations went to people who are Black.

“I would like to see everyone immunized because every time we get immunized, we are contributing to saving someone else’s life,” Dr. Inman said. “It’s not just our own protection, we’re protecting others.”

Despite her own family’s history she encourages people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, saying those on the fence should ask their healthcare provider or other vaccine recipients about what to expect.

“Our public health program now has a bachelor’s degree, we have graduate and undergraduate students. And our students serve as advocates for their communities, for their homes, for their dormitories for their churches for where they work, and where they play,” she said. “And they get questioned all the time and we do have students who don’t want to get immunized and their classmates are probably the biggest advocates.”

She said the delta variant has been especially concerning for those who are unvaccinated.

“Our lives are at stake, the lives of people we love, the lives of individuals who haven’t been immunized. The variant is more transmissible. You can get sicker, be in the hospital, be in the hospital longer, have after-effects longer, and also have a higher percentage of dying,” said Dr. Inman. “You have a higher percentage of hospitalization. ICU costs are extreme: $100,000 plus, you also have the chance of giving your money to the undertaker. ICUs are filling up and the undertaker is making a lot of money on folks that are dying.”

She also has a message for people who attended public schools and had to be immunized in previous years.

“I would like to remind them that when you went to public school, you were fully immunized and those immunizations are still keeping you alive today,” she said. “You’re not dead from your measles, mumps, and rubella. You’re not dead from your polio vaccine. We eliminated smallpox so you know your children don’t even have to take a smallpox immunization. Immunization works. But if you’ve made that choice, you better be darn sure that what you’ve chosen works, because we are very sure that immunization works.”

She looks to history when educating people about the new vaccine.

“We’ve learned from our history in the Tuskegee study. We’ve learned from our history in studying cancer. We’ve learned from our history in smallpox,” she said. “People drive cars wherein the old days, folks used to picket and say ‘get that horseless carriage off the street’. People wouldn’t buckle up until highway patrol officers all over the country were telling us ‘we don’t pull dead bodies out of cars that are buckled people are buckled up’. We have information and proof that what we are recommending works.”

The Metro Public Health Department frequently posts vaccination events in Nashville to its Facebook page.