Gina Harper, clinical coordinator with the hospital pharmacy, waits for the arrival of Gov. Jared Polis before preparing the COVID-19 vaccines to be administered to the first patients in Colorado at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)
By Maurice Sholas, M.D., Ph.D.
“To make people trust, you need to become trustworthy … I think if … communities were engaged in conversation … people would know: ‘You are hearing me, you are respecting my right to ask questions and get a legitimate answer. So now let me make up my own mind’ … If we approach it trying to convince other people, we will never succeed.” — Dr. Camara Jones, physician and epidemiologist in a Dec. 8 interview on CNN
In the spirit of the remarks quoted above, I won’t try to convince fellow Black Americans that they should get the COVID-19 vaccine, only share my thought process before I got the first of my two shots recently.
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I started with the grim reality that many medical advances have come at the expense of marginalized groups. The federal government’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study is an example of Black Americans being neglected when cures were available. The HeLa cell line developed from tissue from Henrietta Lacks is an example of Black people’s genetic material being used without our permission to enrich an industry. Ongoing disparities in health outcomes indicate that Black people continue to be denied access to the full scope and power of the medical industrial complex.
Black people are justifiably skeptical as they evaluate treatments to prevent COVID-19 infection. But as I acknowledge the history, I also insist that Black Americans have full access to the solutions to the pandemic instead of just disproportionately bearing the brunt of infection, illness and death.
First, I trust the science behind the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. The first vaccines to market, including the Pfizer-BioNTech product, rely on technology that is nearly 30 years old.
The previous generation of vaccines, such as those for polio and measles, used DNA from a virus to “teach” the body to recognize that virus and direct the immune system into action. But scientists eventually realized that we don’t need complete virus structures to train the immune system, just a specific and prominent protein from the virus. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine I received will teach my body to target and destroy COVID-19 viruses without actually exposing me to infection. Clinicians, epidemiologists and public health experts determined that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are safe and effective based on trials involving tens of thousands of people. The development of the vaccines has been scientifically sound and clinically rigorous.
Second, I have moral clarity around the need to break the cycle of death and infection. As of Dec. 18, the CDC had counted 16,519,668 cases of infection in the United States and 302,992 deaths. According to the Color of Coronavirus project by the APM Research Lab, 1 in 800 Black Americans infected with the virus is dying compared with 1 in 1,325 white Americans and 1 in 1,925 Asian Americans. That means infected Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to die than white Americans who are infected.
There’d be another 8,182 Black Americans alive today if Black Americans were dying at the same rate as our white counterparts and 12,068 more alive if we were dying at the same rate as our Asian counterparts. We deserve life as much as any other community, and vaccination is a powerful option to decrease the excess deaths.
Finally, economic reasons factored into my decision. The American economy has been devastated by the pandemic. Infections that don’t progress to death still leave individuals unable to provide for themselves or their families. Of special note in Louisiana, COVID-19 restrictions have had a disproportionate impact on service and hospitality industry jobs. At the same time, those who cannot work from home — and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics 4 out of 5 Black Americans cannot — are more exposed and, thus, more likely to get sick. Until the pandemic is controlled and the economy is fully reopened, up to 80% of Black American workers will have increased challenges earning a living.
I literally bet my life, and the lives of those I love, that vaccination is a credible solution. I did so in spite of having fully recovered from a COVID-19 infection. I did so in spite of a medical system that has not always done right by the Black community. I did so because it represents an end to an era of death and disruption unparalleled in modern life. That is my story and my fervent endorsement even as I respect the right of those in my community to decide for themselves.
Maurice Sholas, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician entrepreneur who provides care for children with physical disabilities and as an administrator uses his voice to elevate marginalized communities in health care. He can be reached on all social media platforms at @DocMoSho or at DocMoSho.com.
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