Seeking to reassure African Americans that the COVID-19 vaccinations are safe, the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force united with the Black Press to spread the word.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Task Force chair, and Dr. Cameron Webb, a key member, spoke with Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, NNPA Chair Karen Carter Richards, and Stacy Brown, NNPA senior national correspondent, on May 5, to promote the facts and eradicate the myths surrounding the vaccines.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to get everyone in the country vaccinated who is medically able to. We know we have to do it as quickly as possible to get people connected back with their lives,” said Nunez-Smith, who indicated that she hopes all African Americans will embrace this effort.
Stressing that it’s not only President Joe Biden’s or the nation’s goal to get 70% of the population vaccinated by July 4, but “it has to be a community-level goal, too,” she said. “It’s really about getting everyone who is in our social network vaccinated. One of our greatest challenges right now is getting ahead of this narrative of misinformation on social media.”
Webb stressed that the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are safe, yet people are reluctant to get vaccinated due to complacency, confidence and convenience.
Complacent individuals don’t believe that they will catch the virus, he explained. Others lack confidence in the safety of the product, which translates to not “trusting in the government that’s telling you to get vaccinated,” said Webb, who is the senior policy advisor for COVID-19 equity and a physician and professor at the University of Virginia.
“The last is vaccine convenience and that’s just a matter of having real and ready access to vaccines, that it is coming to the places where people need to go. That’s why you have to start these conversations with listening ears,” he noted.
“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s why you need to get a vaccine,’ you say, ‘Let me hear a bit more about why you are still in a wait and see mode.’ That’s the posture we have to take to get through to more and more folks away from wait and see to yes, I’m ready to get vaccinated,” emphasized Webb.
Nunez-Smith, who is also an associate professor of internal medicine, public health, and management at Yale University, acknowledged that vaccine hesitancy by African Americans is understandable, especially considering historical incidents like the Tuskegee experiment. In that unethical study, Black sharecroppers were unknowingly used as the subjects in a 40-year study of untreated syphilis, from 1932 to 1972, even though an antibiotic became available in 1947.
“People have contemporary experiences…where they or their families, trying to get medical care, were discriminated against,” she recounted. “So, we know there are contemporary realities as well as historic realities as to why people have that skepticism. But, we are always eager to provide facts and bring information to the table.”
Another factor driving reluctance is the rumor that the vaccines are not safe and “people think it’s putting the virus in your body,” added Nunez-Smith. However, she pointed out that more than 75,000 people were part of the clinical trials and 10% were Black Americans. Also, a multicultural team created the vaccines.
“It’s important that people know that no steps were skipped in any of this – [not in the] development and right through to the authorization and approval,” Nunez-Smith said, noting that more than 105 million people have been vaccinated so far.
As far as the number of Blacks vaccinated to date, Webb noted that “about 9% of those who have been vaccinated are Black and 12-to-13% are Hispanic. Those numbers have continued to improve since January.”
Still, since denoting race or ethnicity is not a required data field by many states, there is not an accurate count of the total number of African Americans who have been vaccinated. Webb said that the task force is coordinating with state governments to include that information so that the task force can “see who is getting vaccinated.”
According to the White House website, “the task force is charged with issuing a range of recommendations to help inform the COVID-19 response and recovery. This includes recommendations on equitable allocation of COVID-19 resources and relief funds, effective outreach and communication to underserved and minority populations, and improving cultural proficiency within the Federal Government.”
The group will also prepare a final report that includes “a long-term plan to address data shortfalls regarding communities of color and other underserved populations” as well as advocate future actions to reduce health inequities.
Chavis said, “The NNPA wants to continue to work with Dr. Nunez-Smith, Dr. Webb, and The White House COVID-19 Response Team to ensure that Black America receives updated and vital information about this devastating pandemic. As the trusted voice of the Black community, the Black Press stands ready to assist.”