LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The Rev. Jim Thurman counts himself among the converts who recognize the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

The prominent Black activist received his second dose of vaccine Wednesday as Kentucky's governor highlighted efforts to encourage minority populations to roll up their sleeves for the shots.

“It’s a matter between life and death,” said Thurman, president of the Lexington-Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Thurman said he initially refused to be inoculated, pointing to historical reasons for part of his hesitancy. He specifically noted the so-called “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” in which the federal government let hundreds of Black men in Alabama go untreated for syphilis for 40 years for research purposes.

But after considerable prayer, Thurman said, he saw the value of getting the COVID-19 vaccination.

Gov. Andy Beshear joined Thurman and other Black leaders at Shiloh Baptist Church to promote efforts to increase vaccination rates among the state's minority residents.

Blacks make up 8.4% of Kentucky’s population but account for 4.6% of those vaccinated so far, the governor’s office said. That low vaccination rate points to a deeper problem — that Blacks are underrepresented in many of the professions prioritized for vaccinations, Beshear said.

As the state distributes the vaccines, it’s an “absolute requirement” that “this shot of hope is available to all Kentuckians equitably,” the Democratic governor said.

He acknowledged the challenge of overcoming vaccine hesitancy among some people, especially in minority populations, as the state prepares for ramped-up vaccine shipments.

“It is critical that the color of your skin or the size of your bank account does not matter in the accessibility of getting this vaccine,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he’s more optimistic than ever about defeating COVID-19 this year.

“This vaccine is safe, it’s effective and it is already saving lives,” he said, noting the plunging fatality rate among Kentuckians in long-term care facilities since vaccinations began.

Meanwhile, Kentucky reported 1,306 new coronavirus cases and 51 more virus-related deaths on Wednesday. The state surpassed 400,000 COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began and its death toll from the pandemic reached at least 4,527.

More than 880 virus patients are hospitalized in Kentucky, including 228 in intensive care units.

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