It’s no longer hypothetical. The vaccine with potential to end the global nightmare is here.
But even with its promise of longed-for family reunions, safe travel and in-person gatherings, the medical breakthrough is beset with distrust, as well as anxiety about its equitable dissemination.
Will minority communities, who’ve been most ravaged by the coronavirus and often hold down vital but undistinguished jobs such as housekeepers, grocery clerks, bus drivers and farmworkers, find themselves shoved to the back of the line for this potentially lifesaving vaccine?
Then there are the conspiracy theories, which, to put it in plain English, veer to the outlandish, irresponsible and dangerous. Here’s one I know is being pushed locally from a surprising source: The vaccine will make takers sterile. That same message is being spread on a broader platform to the Black community by the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, is notorious for his virulent anti-Semitism and anti-white rhetoric.
“Don’t let them vaccinate you, with their history of treachery through vaccines, through medication,” Farrakhan is quoted as saying in July. This month, one of his disciples, preaching in a series entitled “America’s Wicked Plan,” offered that the vaccine is part of a scheme to annihilate the Black race.
The Nation of Islam also throws shade on Black medical professionals working to encourage Black people, who are affected disproportionately by the virus, to take the vaccine. But these professionals are fighting an uphill battle.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November, before the FDA issued emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Black Americans were less likely to be vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups. Only 42 percent said they would get the vaccine, compared to 63 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites.
Apart from the fear of taking something that in the minds of some is unproven and has been rushed by politicians, Blacks and other minorities have valid reasons to be distrustful of a medical system that has been historically racist, neglectful and unethical. Blacks most often cite the infamous Tuskegee syphilis trials for their wariness of the health care system.
And while Black, Hispanic and Native American medical professionals aren’t dismissing the abuses of the past, or even the present, many emphasize today’s science and protocols and the protection promised by the coronavirus vaccine.
Dr. Jawan Ayer-Cole, a specialist in hematology and oncology with a private practice and on staff at Tampa General Hospital, got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 16. Ayer-Cole, who is African American, is encouraging her patients, many of whom are Black or Hispanic, to be vaccinated.
“I also let them know that I had it and I didn’t have any side effects or complications and that it’s a reasonable thing to do,” she said, acknowledging the distrust that exists in segments of the minority community. “There is an assumption that the vaccine might not be safe, that we can’t trust the government.”
Ayer-Cole has an additional reason to be concerned about her patients. Many have Sickle Cell anemia, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that affect mostly African Americans. Those with the disease are at a particularly high risk for complications from the coronavirus, so Ayer-Cole has spent the past year trying to keep her patients safe from the virus.
“I certainly do make it a mission of mine to ask them what they are doing to protect themselves from COVID, letting them know the necessary things for them to do to prevent Covid,” she said.
That type of dedication was evident as I listened recently to an online panel discussion. “Making it Plain: Minority Health Professionals and Covid-19 Vaccine Dissemination” was presented by the Black Coalition Against Covid-19 and BlackDoctor.org.
“We’re going to be watching this distribution like a hawk … knowing that the system is not designed for equity,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said. “That means we need to be proactive to make sure our patients are getting the vaccines they need.”
Dr. Brian Thompson of the Association of American Indian Physicians emphasized the importance of visibility. “When you look at our own communities of color, invisibility is sometimes one of the worst forms of racism we have,” he said.
Native Americans have “unique challenges in terms of the vaccine distribution,” including trust, lack of resources and access to care in Indian country, Thompson said.
“Most important in terms of vaccine distribution is the protection of our elders … Most Native providers would actually put their elders before themselves. If we lose your elders, we lose everything,” he said, underscoring their role as the cornerstone of Native American culture.
And Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, spoke of a major media campaign being planned with doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists to emphasize the importance of the vaccine to Latino communities.
Rios also spoke of the need for accurate data collection by race and ethnicity to ensure equity in health care. “Latinos, because they are essential workers – they are in the food industry, cleaning industry, the hospital industry – they are getting impacted more,” she said, adding that they have more than five times the hospitalizations and twice as many deaths as non-Hispanics.
Here in St. Petersburg, Dr. Frederic Guerrier, a Haitian-born physician with a family practice, firmly believes that his patients should get the vaccine, “especially the ones with comorbidities like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.”
A longtime volunteer at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Guerrier expects to set an example by getting the vaccine himself in January. “Some of my patients that have refused the flu shot in the past are willing to take the vaccine,” he said. “With Covid-19 and the number of deaths, people are more fearful.”
Vaccines alone won’t return us to normality, but we’ve got to counter doubt and misinformation being spewed by groups like the Nation of Islam, by co-workers, neighbors, religious leaders and on social media.
We’ve also got to continue to wear masks, social distance and wash our hands, and have the courage to say something when such guidelines are flouted. Not that I have exhibited such courage.
I’ve recently sat stoically and silently in overcrowded doctors’ offices. And just last week, I was in the visitors’ waiting room in a St. Petersburg hospital, where a woman sported a mask below her nose. My response? I quickly gathered up all of the stuff one takes along to endure those long, often worrying waits, and crept as far away as possible.