As officials gear up to begin distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, some African Americans have expressed reservations about taking it due to a historical and present distrust of the medical system.
With that in mind, some local experts are encouraging community members to become knowledgeable about the vaccines and make an informed decision.
“We’ve been lied to so much, blatantly, not just in this pandemic but throughout time, that now we’re in this space where it really counts, we’re second-guessing where seconds matter,” said Kevin Jenkins, an epidemiologist with the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion at the Corporal Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.
“We have to honestly deal with this trust issue by not talking to the people who we don’t trust, but actually trying to bring those ones to the table who speak and perform the level of Blackness that we are looking for to really tell us what is going on.”
He said it’s important that the city’s African-American medical experts and power brokers come together to help inform people about the process.
Dr. Delana Wardlaw, a family medicine physician, said doctors and government officials need to do a better job of educating people about the vaccine and its side effects.
“In order for patients to feel comfortable with this vaccine we have to be clear and concise and provide accurate information across all measures, so that people have a clear understanding and make sure that they are not being used as guinea pigs,” Wardlaw said.
She said that people must understand that vaccines are tested for safety and efficacy and their purpose is to slow down the virus and decrease the severity of the disease.
“All these things have to be communicated to patients and they have to feel like they are making an active choice in the decision to get a vaccine,” Wardlaw said.
“Like I tell my patients, the patient has the final say, but it is my job to make sure that you are getting the accurate information.”
She said it’s going to take a concerted effort to ensure that the vaccine is distributed equitably in Philadelphia.
The city could begin offering the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech as soon as next week if that vaccine receives approval from federal officials this week, according to Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley.
The city plans to roll out the vaccine in three phases. During Phase 1, the city will focus on vaccinating front-line workers in hospitals and nursing homes. In Phase 2, the city will prioritize moderate-risk essential workers and people at high risk of death from the disease, like those with chronic health conditions. The general public is expected to receive the vaccine in Phase 3 of the city’s plan.
“I want people to be confident, to be knowledgeable and to know that there are different vaccines and each vaccine does a little something different,” Jenkins said.
“You want to look at what are the side effects that are noted and known.”
He said that when the vaccine distribution begins, people should also be aware of the different vaccines being used by the hospitals.
Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, said local hospitals have a role in the equitable delivery of the vaccine. She said every hospital should be required to have a culturally competent education program in place, report those of color who receive the vaccines and refuse to take it and keep track of how many ancillary non-medical essential workers receive the vaccine to ensure that the delivery process is balanced.
She said a nurse asked her what to do because staff members were told that if they don’t take the vaccine and they get sick the hospital is not responsible for them.
Stanford said hospitals should release a statement that people’s benefits will not be removed and they will not be penalized for not taking the vaccine or pausing when it’s initially offered.
“Hospitals’ and long-term care facilities’ employees of color need a place to voice their fears and be vulnerable,” she said.
“Just as the side effects of long-term care facility residents and staff will be reported, we must report the ability to administer to the groups that are most affected.”
Dr. Cherise Hamblin, a Lancaster-based obstetrician and gynecologist, said the rollout of a vaccine is promising.
“The vaccine is a potential way out of the COVID cloud that we have been living in,” she said.
“As we talk about reopening the economy and all of these different things, the reality is what we’ve been waiting for is effective treatments and a vaccination. So it’s very promising and positive that here is a vaccine,” she said.
“Being able to have wide and robust access to vaccination and testing is what our world is going to need to get to anything that is more palatable than 2020.”