BCN Exclusive: Black America still not convinced yet on COVID-19 vaccine

BCN Exclusive: Black America still not convinced yet on COVID-19 vaccine

By BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – Feb. 15, 2021 — As the Joe Biden administration ramps up efforts to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine, a parallel crusade is ongoing to get the nation’s African American population to buy into the nationwide campaign.

On Thursday (Feb 11), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have purchased an additional 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from both Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. to help meet the demand for COVID-19 vaccines in the United States.

That brings the total vaccine purchased by the U.S. government from these two companies to 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate 300 million people. According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, there are just over 330 million people living in the U.S. and its territories. Considering the average $30 cost for each dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, U.S. taxpayers are now on the hook for $18 billion.

Under the terms of the purchase agreement with the Biden administration, each company is delivering 300 million doses in regular increments through the end of July 2021. Each company will leverage U.S.-based manufacturing capacity to fill, finish and ship vials as the bulk material is produced.

“As the President directed, we are expanding our supply of COVID vaccines to protect people as quickly as possible,” said Acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran. “These purchases will allow us to accelerate our vaccination efforts to get shots into the arms of the American people. While we rapidly ramp up the pace of vaccinations, I encourage everyone to take actions now to protect themselves and their families: wear a mask, wash your hands often, and practice physical distancing.”

The companies began manufacturing doses of their vaccines while clinical trials were getting underway in the second half of 2020. Beginning the complex process of scaling up to large-scale manufacturing in parallel with clinical trials expedited the traditional vaccine development timeline so that initial doses could begin shipping when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization.

As the rest of the nation awaits those increased vaccine doses in their communities, the Biden administration is also specifically targeting Black America as new COVID-19 strains are starting to spread to all states. According to the CDC, as of Feb. 7, 699 variant cases have been confirmed across 34 states, with 690 of these cases being the B117 variant, the variant first reported in the United Kingdom.

As part of his broad COVID-19 eradication plan, President Biden has kept his word to move quickly to contain the pandemic by expanding testing, and safely reopening schools and businesses. At the same time, the administration said it is also taking science-driven steps to address the communities — especially communities of color — who have been hardest hit by this virus.

In announcing the most aggressive public mandate since the first coronavirus case in the U.S. in March 2020, CDC officials moved forward on Feb. 2 with implementing provisions of Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel. 

This order now requires the wearing of masks by all travelers into, within, or out of the U.S., including on airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares. The mask requirement also applies to travelers in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and seaports;

train, bus, and subway stations; and any other areas that provide transportation.  Transportation operators must require all persons on board to wear masks when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel. 

The CDC said the national mask mandate is to further prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to support state and local health authorities, transportation partners, and conveyance operators to keep passengers, employees, and communities safe. The order comes only 11 days after Biden and Harris took office and pledged to get the COVID-19 vaccine to 100 million Americans in the

president’s first 100 days in office. 

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Black Preachers, Tuskegee & Henrietta Lacks

In association with that administration’s COVID-19 vaccine push and mask mandate, black clergy across the U.S. have joined together to promote the “Choose Healthy Life” COVID-19 testing, vaccine awareness and education events. On the clergy-led website here that includes several high-profile black preachers, including current U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the former senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the subscript reads: “When White America gets a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.”

Rev. Al Sharpton, co-chair of the Choose Healthy Life National Black Clergy Health Leadership Council, demonstrates the ease and necessity of COVID-19 testing to help address the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 in Black communities. This event, held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Jan. 25, is the first of hundreds of planned COVID-19 testing events at Black churches across the US, a partnership of Choose Healthy Life, Quest Diagnostics, and the United Way.

The clergy-led initiative, which includes Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem and Bishop T.D. Jakes in Dallas, is helping the White House make the case that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate and devastating impact on Black communities and other underserved communities of color.

In late December as the Biden administration was preparing its COVID-19 response plan before the Jan. 6 insurrection and subsequent Jan. 20 inauguration, Sharpton and Rev. Calvin O. Butts convened a meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That meeting also included other top doctors including the National Medical Association, the nation’s largest and oldest trade group representing African American physicians and their patients in the U.S.

That meeting — backed by U.S. testing conglomerate Quest Diagnostics, which has seen its sales jumped 9.4% to $8.36 billion amid the pandemic — was supposedly called to address racial health disparities, fighting COVID-19 in the Black community and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is critical to address the racial disparities of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in the United States,” said Dr. Fauci. “Reaching out through trusted messengers and advocates like the leaders from the Black Church is critically important as we communicate to the hardest hit communities. We must also remain vigilant as the vaccine is rolled out by continuing to use the tools we currently have at our disposal and that includes testing.”

That meeting also included Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, and former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, president of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. “We must work together with community leaders like those from the Black Church to provide accurate information, build trust and ensure a successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.” said Messonnier, a prominent White female doctor.

In Arkansas, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. also hosted the “Know the Facts: COVID-19 Vaccine” town hall meeting on Feb. 3. At that televised event, Scott and local medical and healthcare officials updated local residents on the available vaccines, pending approvals of vaccines, and Arkansas’ statewide vaccination plan. Mayor Scott, an ordained Baptist minister, and city officials also geared the town hall meeting toward communities of color, and people that mistrust or have less access to healthcare.

In an interview on Feb. 5 with Executive Wesley Brown and BCN Chief Creative Officer Angel Burt, Scott said the Biden administration has told him, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state Health Department officials they would soon triple the amount of COVID-19 vaccine coming into Arkansas communities.

“They’ve dispelled the mistruths about COVID-19 and the vaccination,” Scott said of his local task force that includes top healthcare, medical and state Health Department officials. “One of things we all know that with healthcare disparities there is a disproportionate impact in not only Black but on Brown brothers and sisters here in Little Rock and across the nation.

“There is a lot of distrust as it relates to the Tuskegee (experiment), as well as the Henrietta Lacks situation in where here cells were stolen from her, and those cells are actually used to this day for cancer research,” Scott said of the infamous HeLa cell medical research.

Despite that distrust of the medical community and healthcare system that still exists, the city’s first duly elected Black mayor told he intends to receive the COVID-19 shot soon as part of the state’s three-phase vaccine distribution plan approved by the CDC in early January. He later joked that he will publicly get his COVID-19 shot as part of the state’s Phase 1-B group. 

“What we want to do is to take the time to show that the data and the research shows that this vaccine is needed, that you are no going to have any undo (problems) – although with any medicine there is some side effects– but this is what we need to get to a post COVID-19 era,” said Scott. “We want to make sure that every in Little Rock has a chance to get the vaccine, and that they take the vaccine.”

Under Arkansas namesake COVID-19 Vaccination Program, state health officials would prioritize populations that would receive the vaccine first in three phases. Under a Phase I-A that started about a week before Christmas, the first group to receive the vaccine included health care personnel likely to be exposed to patients with COVID-19.

In the current Phase 1-B of the state’s plan, state health officials are targeting people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including minority populations, those with underlying medical conditions, and people 65 years or older. That plan would also target local daycare workers, employees at correctional facilities, K-12 teachers and staff, law enforcement, laborers in the state’s poultry and meat packing industry, and other government personnel.

In Phase 2, as increased supplies of the vaccine are available, COVID-19 shots would be expanded to all Phase 1 populations not previously covered in health care settings such as doctor’s offices, dental clinics, and pharmacies. Next in line would be critical workers in utilities services, transportation, and local grocery stores, followed by workers at food manufacturing plants, nursing homes, and state universities. 

As vaccine supplies continued to grow and demand for COVID-19 shots slowed, state health care officials would expand the inoculation network in Phase 3 to target hard-to-reach populations, the homeless and areas with low uptake rates to reach those wary of vaccines or getting shots. As of Feb. 11, there were a total of 621,075 vaccine does received in Arkansas and 442,134 shots administered in Phase 1-B. That represents about 15% of the more than 3 million Arkansans that have been vaccinated as part of Pfizer and Moderna’s two-dose vaccination protocol.

* * * *

Black doctors speak out

Despite those entreaties from the Biden administration and black leaders and clergy, the distrust in the Black community concerning the COVID-19 remains palpable. In late 2020, a survey by revealed a staggering 58% of the respondents wouldn’t take a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as it’s available.

In addition to nearly six out of 10 Black Americans saying “no” to the vaccine, 22% reported they would take the vaccine, but had “concerns.” In total, 80% of respondents either said “no” or had “concerns” regarding taking a COVID-19 vaccine with the majority saying “no” because they “didn’t trust the healthcare system.” 

According to the CDC, Black Americans represent a disproportionate number of positive cases and deaths associated with coronavirus. “These facts make it logical for Black Americans to want to receive a vaccination as soon as it’s available, the survey noted. “Unfortunately, there is a long history of distrust between Black Americans and the medical community. This distrust gets exacerbated when the government is involved in the research, creation, and dissemination of the vaccine,” said BDO, the online medical platform for people of color.

“BDO recognizes this distrust is real and warranted. From the Tuskegee Experiment, to Henrietta Lacks, to general biases causing misdiagnosis, Black Americans don’t use medical care as frequently as mainstream America. This lack of engagement has shown to be consistent, regardless of age or socioeconomic status,” BDO concluded.

To overcome distrust and get more Black Americans to engage in new treatments or vaccinations, BDO recommends that any messaging to the community must be authentic, experts should “look like them,” and all promotional content must also be based on Black Americans’ truths.

In addition, Howard University President Wayne Frederick, a practicing surgeon and person living with sickle cell disease, has produced a public service announcement (PSA) on the importance of getting the coronavirus vaccine. He was among the first to get a vaccine shot at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., saying he hopes his message will encourage others to do the same. Watch the PSA here.

“The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on communities of color, and that narrative won’t change until we take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from exposure,” said Dr. Frederick on Jan. 6, the same day as the insurrection at the nation’s capital. “The vaccines that are coming to market are safe and have been proven to be more than 90% effective. However, we can’t get to the other side of this pandemic without you. Wear a mask, keep your social distance, wash your hands and, when the time comes, get vaccinated.”

Dr. Frederick said he has been on the frontlines of the pandemic in a variety of ways, including making the tough decision to close one of the nation’s top HCBUs in March, and spearheading efforts to set up COVID-19 testing sites in urban communities. In Washington, D.C., where Howard University is located, African-Americans have comprised 75% of the COVID-19-related deaths in Washington, D.C., while making up only 46% of the city’s population. Public health officials and academics are pointing to underlying health conditions for the severity of the virus in vulnerable populations. 

The Howard University PSA, produced in partnership with HCBUs’ own television station, WHUT-TV; Howard University Hospital; and the university’s communications office, features several essential health care workers sharing their personal reasons for getting the vaccine. As each person steps up to be vaccinated, they express their “why”: for family, to protect fellow co-workers and in honor of those who’ve lost their lives.  

“I understand there is a lot of hesitancy in minority communities across the country when it comes to healthcare, but this is not an American experiment on Black people. The vaccine is a worldwide cure to end a global pandemic and set us on a path back to normalcy,” said Howard University Hospital CEO Anita Jenkins, who is featured in the PSA getting her shot.“We want the public to know that we trust the science, we’re leading by example and taking the vaccine will help us end this pandemic and the tragic loss of life.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration on Feb. 12 announced that those eligible for the vaccine will have the opportunity to be vaccinated at select pharmacies across the country through the administration’s Federal Retail Pharmacy Program (FRPP) for COVID-19 Vaccination. This program is a public-private partnership with 21 national pharmacy partners and networks of independent pharmacies representing over 40,000 pharmacy locations nationwide, including retail giants like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Walgreens and CVS.

Through its pharmacy operations mostly located in Walmart stores and Sam’s Club warehouse clubs across the nation, Walmart Stores Inc. said it will begin administering COVID-19 vaccines in Arkansas through the Biden’s administration FRPP initiative on Feb 12. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant said it will focus on locations that reach customers in underserved communities with limited access to healthcare throughout its Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies. (See video here.)

According to the Biden administration, the vaccine is available at no cost. For private-sector administration partners, costs are being covered by healthcare payers, including private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, and an HHS program to cover COVID-19 costs for the uninsured which is reimbursing providers at Medicare rates from the federal Provider Relief Fund.


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