University of Maryland Professor Stephen Thomas is working with local barbers to introduce conversations about public health to barbershops in his community.
“I'm a Black man in America,” he said. “Guess what? I go to a Black barbershop. But I also happen to be a professor of public health," Thomas said.
Teaming up with barbers and local doctors, Thomas has created the Health Advocates in Reach and Research program. Through his initiative, Thomas has helped barbers lead conversations about colon cancer prevention, screenings and other health matters pertaining to the Black community. In recent months, his focus has shifted towards creating a conversation around the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Most of the clients are saying they don't want to take it; they won't take it,” barber Michael Brown said.
Given the country's past regarding discrimination and racism, many Black Americans harbor distrust regarding the healthcare system. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Black Americans experienced discrimination or racial bias when encountering a healthcare professional within the past year. Furthermore, KFF found that only 56% of Black Americans believed that local hospitals would do what is right for their communities. In an attempt to bridge the gap, Thomas is hoping that he can use barbers to bridge the gap of mistrust.
"The barbers and stylists in the Black community have trust. That's more important than a degree behind your name," Thomas said.
As Moderna and Pfizer continue to roll out their vaccines, Thomas hopes to expand the HAIR program. While the program works with 10 shops now, he hopes to take it across the country in the future. He is also working to recruit more Black Americans to participate in the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
“People need to get involved, because if you don't, you eventually become a recruit for the COVID army and you are going to wind up killing yourself or someone close that you love," Brown said.
"It’s not funny ‘til it lands on your doorstep, and that's what we are trying to prevent."
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