On May 5, leaders of the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force shared important information about COVID-19 vaccinations and Black America during an exclusive live briefing for the Black Press. Two African-American physicians who serve as members of the Task Force, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith and Dr. Cameron Webb, answered questions posed by members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) including Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president/CEO, Senior National Correspondent Stacy M. Brown and Karen Clark Richards, chairperson.
The NNPA represents 230 Black-owned newspapers and media companies reaching 25-30 million people per week.
Why is there so much vaccine hesitancy within the African-American community?
Nunez-Smith: That’s the question of the day and it speaks to the challenge we continue to face – reaching a greater percentage of the Black community. Vaccine hesitancy stems from the historic reality of the routine mistreatment of Blacks and Black bodies – something which continues today.
Webb: Vaccine hesitancy is three things packed into one: complacency (no fears), confidence (belief in the government and vaccine providers) and convenience (having real and ready access). Combined, they form vaccine hesitancy with the three elements continuing to play out in the Black community. To reduce that hesitancy, we must continue to inform Blacks so that they abandon prevailing “wait and see” with a willingness to get the vaccine.
How many people of color have been vaccinated at this point?
Webb: Less than 9 percent of Blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics have been vaccinated. But those numbers are misleading as data for 40 percent of those vaccinated was compiled before the requirement of ethnic affiliation. Even looking at zip codes to triangulate numbers can only give us a reasonable guess.
President Biden has set a goal of 70 percent of the adult population being vaccinated by July 4. How can the Black Press, as a trusted voice in the Black community, be of assistance?
Nunez-Smith: Yes, it is an ambitious goal but we want to get all citizens vaccinated so that we can reduce the potential impact of variants and so we can simply help people finally reconnect with their lives. All of this is hyper-local in nature. The differences between those vaccinated and those who are not often can be linked to race and zip codes in many jurisdictions. It must become a community’s goal.
As an example, in New Haven, Connecticut where I live, Blacks represent 24 percent of those vaccinated while in more-white zip codes in the city, whites have achieved a rate of 78 percent.
It’s about getting those within our social network and community vaccinated. The key is for people to see others they know getting vaccinated, then sharing their story – their vaccination journey. It’s all about talking openly and honestly about their experience which is essential in combatting the miseducation and dis-education that has come from the media. To help the Black community, we must get ahead of the (false) narrative.
Some people worry that the vaccine will make them sick or kill them? Could they be right?
Webb: We have three vaccines that are both safe and effective. The three are life-saving vaccines that work a little differently but all teach your body how to recognize the threat of the virus without introducing the actual virus into your body. Over 75,000 went through the trials that included Blacks and Hispanics. So far, we have vaccinated 105 million people.
Nunez-Smith: It’s important to note that despite the review process of the vaccine being highly politicized the review process was transparent. The trials included a diverse representation of ethnicities that provided vital data in the development of the vaccine.
We have rigorous systems established for surveillance, vigilance and follow-up. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine strengthened my confidence in how the system works. Six cases of a rare blood clot were reported after almost 8 million doses were given. The CDC stepped in, paused the use and then reviewed data while looking for additional cases. In the end, they found 15 cases and subsequently shared those symptoms that might suggest a blood clot. The vaccine is safe – no steps were skipped from development of the vaccine to the authorization.
What are the common side effects one may experience from the vaccine?
Webb: Discomfort at the site of the vaccination, muscle/joint aches and headaches are common and people should be aware of any severe reactions which may occur within the first 24 to 36 hours after receiving the vaccine. You can take Tylenol if you’re experiencing soreness or just feeling crummy after getting the shot.
And the second dose, if the vaccine requires one, is important because it provides greater protection (durability). The CDC guidance is also important to follow, like wearing masks and remaining at safe distances from others. We’re not at 100,000 new cases each day. But the current infection rate of 35,000 to 40,000 each day is still serious. Those who are fully vaccinated (have received both doses) are much less likely to get COID-19. But while the Pfizer vaccine is 95 percent effective, even with 100 million fully vaccinated as of last Friday, that still means the vaccine was not as effective for 5 million people. You won’t know who those people are. So, the best way to remain healthy is to get the vaccine and follow the CDC recommendations.
What message do you wish to leave with Black America?
Nunez-Smith: Let us not pass up the opportunity to benefit from scientific discovery. We see our communities still lagging behind others but the Biden Administration is 100 percent committed to ensuring full access for everyone. People still need information and the best sources remain those whom they trust. A lot of people rely on getting their questions answered through social media. But Blacks should be aware that social media does not have our best interests in mind.
We’re fortunate to have vaccines and therapies that work and are available in our country. But we’ve got to make use of them if we want to get to a new normal in America and if we want to keep both ourselves and our families safe.