Every morning before the dew has dried on Andre Brunson’s 80 acres of land along Alabama’s Uphapee Creek, he swings his pickup truck out on to the gravel road leading from his house in Alabama.

When heading for his eight-hour shift, he packs his bulletproof vest, gun, flashlight and now – since coronavirus sent him to the hospital in January – an asthma inhaler and a nebulizer.

Brunson lives in Tuskegee, where he’s the county sheriff.

“I’m a big strong guy and I just thought it was never going to affect me. Once I got Covid I realized I’m just like everybody else,” he said.

While other officials were kicking off 2021 by taking the brand-new Covid vaccine, rolling up their sleeves on television to encourage others, Brunson had chosen not to take the shot.

Then Covid struck him like “a bus”, he said.

Tuskegee sits at the heart of Macon county, where Brunson has lived for 36 years.

It was there that in the past the United States Public Health Service notoriously promised to treat 400 poor Black men for syphilis, but they never received treatment.

Instead, from 1932 through 1972, the government watched the men buckle under the effects of the illness, while deceiving them about the medical study they were conducting, and denying them a cure.

That tainted history and initial worries among the public about whether the Covid vaccine was egg-based – Brunson has an extreme egg allergy – put him among those reluctant to get vaccinated in Alabama.

“People here in Macon county had to deal with the syphilis study … myself and a lot of other people were hesitant [to get the Covid vaccine], not only because of the study, but because it was something new that hadn’t been tested,Brunson said.

By the end of January, about 676,000 Alabamian essential workers and people over 75 were eligible to get the vaccine, just weeks after it was approved for emergency use by US regulators, according to the Alabama department of public health.

Of that population, the 57-year-old sheriff was a part of the 55% of eligible people that didn’t get vaccinated.

When he caught Covid soon after, he spent the first night battling the virus alone in his basement, but as his condition deteriorated his wife, Courtney Brunson, couldn’t help but risk her own safety to take care of him.

He slept no more than 30 minutes each night out of fear that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

“It felt like I had been hit by a bus,” the father of four said. “Having Covid was one of the worst things in the world.

He suffered for three weeks and made it through. But it took him six months to get his senses of taste and smell back and, 10 months later, Brunson is still dealing with persistent side-effects.

He’s been rushed to the hospital more than 10 times because he couldn’t breathe.

The 282-pound man who used to work out and run every day is still experiencing a loss of strength, waves of fatigue and a lack of energy.

I think if I had taken the vaccine, I wouldn’t have gone through what I went through. But now I have to live [with it],” Brunson said.

Since the start of the global pandemic in 2020, Black communities throughout the US have been disproportionately affected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Black Americans are almost three times as likely to be hospitalized due to Covid-19 as the white population and twice as likely to die from it.

In Macon county, where about four in five residents are Black, Covid rates followed national trends and the Black population bore the brunt of the virus. At least one in seven Macon residents have caught Covid, according to New York Times data.

But the syphilis experiment in Tuskegee, other examples of racism in medical mistreatment and a history of being let down by the government have sown generational mistrust in the healthcare system for many Black Americans, in Alabama and across the US – in turn driving vaccine hesitancy.

Twice a week during football season, Brunson pulls on Tuskegee University’s maroon and gold gear – he wears his own 1987 football championship ring from his college days there – and hits the field as the team’s strength coach.

Normally he would shuttle between the goals, concerned about the team’s conditioning. Now, he worries about the conditions of his lungs.

As of 29 October, about 41% of Macon county residents were fully vaccinated.

Alabama ranks third to last in the US in fully vaccinated rates, with about 45% of the population fully vaccinated. Only West Virginia and Wyoming report lower rates of vaccination.

Black people account for about 22% of Alabama’s small vaccinated population.

Back in July, by which time only about a third of eligible Alabamians had been vaccinated – the lowest rate in the country – the state governor, Kay Ivey, a white Republican, called the vaccine “the greatest weapon we have to fight Covid”.

At the same time, without addressing community concerns, she warned bluntly that it was “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for surging cases of Covid-19, and accused those who had not yet taken the shot of “letting us down”.

In August, Brunson followed his wife’s example and received the vaccine, after doing some more research and talking to his doctor, he explained to the Guardian last week.

Now, every Thursday evening when Brunson hits the radio airwaves in Tuskegee for his regular community broadcast, he lets listeners know that he’s vaccinated, what he’s been through and is still going through.

“I tell them that Covid-19 is real. I always tell them that I almost lost my life to Covid and what a difficult time I had … There were many nights I stayed up praying to God … that he wouldn’t take me,” he told the Guardian.

It’s proving effective.

He noted: “Many people said if it’s happened to the sheriff, it could happen to them.”

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