By Darryl Sellers
2021 has brought with it, more daunting challenges in the African American community’s fight against COVID-19. More transmissible variants of the coronavirus which have emerged are swiftly sweeping their way across the United States. This latest trend in the year-long pandemic is especially troubling for Black people who are four times more likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White people.
Despite these stark numbers, COVID vaccination rates for African Americans are among the lowest of all ethnicities. In fact, February data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that white Americans are getting vaccinated at a rate which is three times higher than Black Americans. An even more staggering statistic shows that only 5.4 percent of Black people have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine compared to 60 percent of White people. According to a January poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are still 43 percent of African Americans who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine; taking a “wait and see” approach to find out how well the vaccine works for other people.
African American communities are still brimming with mistrust following historical and contemporary experiences of medical discrimination, including the decades-long Tuskegee experiments and the Henrietta Lacks saga. These are just two of many scars that still resonate today and are at the forefront of the Black community’s view of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout through a skeptical lens. Meanwhile, the pandemic is continuing to ravage our country with the U.S. sadly surpassing 520,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to a recent report.
To shed a positive light and share accurate information about COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout with African Americans, the Black Doctors Against COVID-19 (BCAC) hosted a January Facebook Live event, “Making it Plain: What Black America Needs To Know About COVID-19 and Vaccines” an episode in an important and informative series which features the nation’s top Black medical experts as well as faith-based and social organization leaders who are keeping Black Americans informed about what we need to know about COVID-19 and vaccines.
In the early weeks into the Biden Administration’s start in the White House, they are already moving forward on the mission to prioritize building trust with African American communities. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, one of the event’s guest speakers and director of the White House’s Health Equity Task Force, said government and medical institutions have actively earned mistrust. But she assured the more than 700,000+ viewers that she is part of an administration which is driven to change the narrative for Black communities. “The President-elect has said and is committed to honesty and transparency,” she said. “We’ve got an incoming administration that reflects the diversity of America. I want to just assure everyone that centering on equity is a shared value across the entire administration.”
For the moment, the worst wave of the current coronavirus infections seems to be behind us. According to February data from the New York Times, new COVID cases have declined by a whopping 47% since early January. As America starts to mass vaccinate the population in hopes of continuing to lower infection rates and death totals, Dr. Nunez-Smith said that’s why the Biden Administration is taking the imperative steps to lessen the impact of social determinants which affect healthcare, housing and transportation in Black communities. This will help to ensure Black communities don’t go backwards.
“We also have to make sure that vaccinations are free,” Dr. Nunez-Smith said. “That is an important consideration,” she said. “But vaccination alone is not sufficient. Specific to COVID-19, we have to make sure everyone has equal access to things like testing for COVID.”
Also at the center of the issue of equity in the dissemination of COVID vaccines to African Americans is Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. She’s also co-director of the prestigious National Academies of Medicine committee which was commissioned last fall by the CDC to submit recommendations for a framework which will help to determine how the COVID-19 vaccines can be distributed equitably.
Dr. Gayle noted the framework recognizes that communities of color have been the hardest hit and are disproportionally affected by the pandemic. But race isn’t the only factor that put Black people at a higher risk of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. This concern also relates to the impact of race and racism. Dr. Gayle said this has made the project a landmark undertaking. “It’s the first time that equity has been front and center in title and design of a vaccine rollout,” she said.
While we wait for the vaccine to be rolled out widely to the general public, there are concerns in the Black community that the process of distributing the COVID-19 vaccines needs to be improved. Mark Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League has echoed this uneasiness about the dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccines for African Americans. He says the vaccine distribution strategy relies too heavily on hospitals and chain pharmacies, making it insufficient to get the job done.
“The top 25 chain pharmacies groups in the United States have about 38,000 pharmacies,” Morial said. “If they were to vaccinate some 300 million people each one of those pharmacies would have to give the vaccine to nearly 9,000 people twice,” he said. “That means that each pharmacy would administer 18,000 vaccinations of the Prizer vaccine. This is logistically impossible.”
Morial is strongly urging the Biden Administration to make fast and radical changes to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan across the United States which includes mandating states, counties and cities to create their own vaccination plans. He said a broader approach of having nurses, doctors, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants administer the vaccine in community-based sites, schools and libraries would be a more effective and “common sense” solutions to getting shots of the COVID-19 vaccines into African American’s arms.
Another dilemma regarding COVID-19 is the misinformation, a lack of information and deep-seated mistrust in the Black community regarding the vaccines and the process used to develop them. Morial said this has led to the concern, for some African Americans, that the vaccine development was rushed or that the process is attached to ghosts of the Tuskegee experiments. To confront these concerns, Morial suggests that government, states, counties and cities foster broad engagement, public relations and advertising campaigns to provide Black communities with accurate information, will help to create transparency relating to COVID-19 and the vaccines which will help to build confidence in African American communities.
Morial has also noted that it’s key to have the right messengers amplify medical advice and messages about COVID-19 to our communities. “The right messengers are African American physicians, doctors and scientists,” he said. “Those medical professionals who we respect in the Black community, from the Black medical schools, from the Black professional associations, have examined, looked at, reviewed the process and have green lit it.”
In his leadership role with the National Urban League, Morial has had numerous discussions with the Biden Administration’s Task Force, governors, mayors, staff from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the CDC. Morial has spoken with these groups, saying that he envisions Community-Based organizations having a prominent role in the COVID-19 vaccine dissemination process.
Although the battle against COVID-19 is a massive undertaking, Morial said his suggested approach will help to sway doubters and boost the Black community’s confidence in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, spurring a call to action to get vaccinated. “I fear there will be chaos and confusion if this is not done in the right way,” Morial said. “Community-based distribution and a community conversation based with the right messengers, and we can advance this.”
As some states continue to struggle with closing the racial gap in the number of COVID-19 vaccinations for African Americans, Black pastors and other faith-based leaders are taking the reins as a group of the respected messengers about the virus in the Black community.
One of those respected messengers is Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of the nationally renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. He is also co-chair of the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan which addresses COVID-19 and other health disparities in Black communities.
The founder of the organization is Debra Frazier-Howze who was an advisor to U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on HIV and AIDS from 1998 to 2003. During that time, Reverend Butts was called on to help lead the effort to quash the HIV virus and AIDS, a deathly disease, which has ravaged the Black Community. It was a landmark moment in our history when the faith-based and science communities joined forces to fight an epidemic.
Reverend Butts is one of the many faith leaders who is on the frontlines, carrying on the Choose Health Life Black Clergy Action Plan’s mission of providing accurate messages and current information about COVID-19 while standing with science as well as serving as an ambassador to keep his congregation and the Black faith-based community informed about the pandemic.
“Our community has been the one that’s been the least informed, often left out and of course manipulated,” Reverend Butts said. “We believe now based on our success with HIV AIDS that our pattern really means bringing together the clergy with the scientists, the doctors and the community-based organizations so that we can get the information out,” he added. “We’re trying to save lives.”
In late-January, Reverend Butts rolled up his left sleeve to get his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, along with his wife Patricia at their historic church, which was New York city’s first church to administer the vaccine. The church has also recently received 500 doses of the COVID vaccine for members of the congregation and the larger community, specifically people who are 65 and older and other eligible New Yorkers, including teachers, grocery store workers, and first responders. Reverend Butts said this important step is one example of the Black churches’ commitment to be a vanguard for the health of African American communities.
While Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Dr. Helene Gayle and Mark Morial continue to be prominent and strong advocates to vaccinate Black people age 65+ and frontline workers during this stage of the fight against COVID-19, Reverend Butts is also continuing to be a champion for the cause. He’s spreading the gospel, encouraging his congregation and other faith-based communities to rise above reluctancy, trust the COVID-19 vaccines and take the “leap of faith” to get vaccinated. This really gives us our best “shot” to stay healthy, combat COVID-19 and the more contagious virus variants and win the war that’s being waged against the virus. “The Black pastor is still the most trusted of all,” Reverend Butts said. “And I think because we are the church, we will have great success, the same way we did when we confronted the AIDS pandemic.”
For more information about COVID-19, health, wellness and upcoming BCAC Facebook Live events: Black Coalition Against COVID-19, a key health resource for African Americans.
Black Doctor.org, the world’s largest and most comprehensive online health resource specifically targeted to African Americans.