The National Urban League and the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 hosted a virtual conversation with medical professionals Friday highlighting the need for equity in the national response to the pandemic.
The conversation came as coronavirus infections have surged locally and nationally.
“This is a serious crisis facing this nation with disproportionate burden on America’s Black communities,” NUL President Marc Morial said during the virtual media briefing.
“The cost to our communities is immeasurable.”
He noted that Black Americans are being infected with COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites. In Philadelphia, Blacks account for 52.9% of coronavirus hospitalizations and 49% of deaths from the virus.
Morial said decisions about the development and approval of a global vaccine should be made in close consultation with the Black medical community. He said people with underlying conditions such as cancer and sickle cell disease should be given priority for receiving a vaccine and that vaccine distribution sites should be located within the hardest-hit communities.
To help build confidence around the vaccine development process, the NUL and the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 have partnered with Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, along with the National Medical Association, National Black Nurses Association and BlackDoctor.org.
Moderna and Pfizer Inc. are on track to apply for emergency use authorization of their vaccines within the U.S.
Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, said caution must used when interpreting the results of Moderna and Pfizer’s clinical trials.
“We have to be very careful when we try to interpret these results that we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said.
“People who got the vaccine did not contract COVID at the same rate, but we don’t know if all participants were exposed to COVID at the same level.”
Frederick also spoke about African Americans having a distrust of vaccine development.
“The mistrust that exists in our country today is a mistrust of institutions — our government institutions, law enforcement, etc.,” he said.
“So it spreads across our community and what we must do is to make sure that we as Black health professionals are at the front of bringing the story to our community, and making sure they can feel confident when we do say that a vaccine is available.”
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, Morehouse School of Medicine president, said 14% of the Moderna and Pfizer trial participants were people of color.
“We believe that there has been good representation of people of color in the trials, which we think is critically important,” said Montgomery Rice, who serves on a COVID-19 National Institutes of Health panel with other African-American scientists.
“We have the opportunity to look at many of the trials and actually opine on the information that was going to be in consent forms and how the information was going to be marketed to the public.”
She highlighted the importance of African-American participation in clinical trials for a vaccine. The nation’s four historically Black medical colleges and universities are COVID-19 clinical trial sites.
“We want people of color to participate and we must participate,” Montgomery Rice said.
“The reason why I say this to people is because we don’t want any gap in the data. That’s why we need diversity in a clinical trial because during this phase you can see those unanticipated side effects and then have a plan of action for them.”
During the briefing, physicians addressed topics ranging from access to coronavirus testing to health disparities and challenges faced by front-line health care workers such as burnout.
“There is an urgency in regards to meeting these problems with appropriate resources,” said Dr. Leon McDougle, president of the National Medical Association.
“When you look at the national lack of leadership and a 50-state strategy that is uncoordinated, it affects our population the most. Our physicians, nurses and pharmacies — we’re on the frontline — making it very critical that we not only participate in clinical trials but we also have access to safe and effective vaccines that are developed.”
Dr. Martha Dawson, president of the National Black Nurses Association, said some nurses in hospitals are having to make critical decisions with other medical personal about who gets access to ventilators.
“I was talking to a young nurse earlier this week who shared with me that her hospital had already started the protocol to make a decision as [to] how they are going to determine which patients will be placed on a ventilator and which patients will not be given a ventilator — based on a preexisting condition [and] the likelihood that they are going to survive,” she said.
Montgomery Rice addressed the link between social determinants of health and the higher rates of coronavirus in African Americans.
“When you think about this disease we have to make sure everyone understands that your race is not the risk factor,” she said.
Rice said those who are disproportionately burdened with the coronavirus are front-line workers, essential health workers, people who live in ZIP codes where they don’t have access to optimal health care, and people in multi-generational households.
“What we want people to understand is, it is those social determinants that are influencing the outcomes,” she said.