As an African-American woman who works in health care, I felt it was my duty to be one of the very first individuals to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Like many of you, I’ve heard the false narratives surrounding the vaccine as well as the overabundance of misinformation circulating on social media. Prior to taking the shot, I had my own personal trepidations. But, like any medications I’ve taken in the past, I did my due diligence and conducted my own research to gain a greater understanding of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
I learned about the risks, side-effects and symptoms. I listened to the experts and spoke with our own medical professionals here at the hospital; I asked questions; and shared concerns with my husband, family and close friends to garner their opinions. And then, I started to have conversations with my staff about taking the vaccine. Many members of our leadership team stepped up and said, “I’ll take it, if you take it.”
In mid-December, I, along with hospital and Howard University leaders decided to be the first in our organization to take the shot to lead by example and help people understand, this is a safe and effective weapon against the scourge of COVID-19, which has taken so many lives, day-after-day.
We know that the African-American community at large, which suffers from a disproportionate COVID-19 infection rate compared to other races. In fact, COVID-19 exposure and mortality rates among people of color in Washington, D.C., are three-times higher than the national average.
Marginalized patients have also been unequally impacted due a wide range of health inequities that are now coming to light because of the virus. However, in the first few months of the vaccine’s rollout, African Americans are receiving vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than their White counterparts.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll suggested that 35% of African Americans said they do not plan to get the vaccine. This high volume of unwilling minority participants is a significant concern in communities of color that have a long-standing mistrust of the healthcare community.
Historically, this suspicion and wariness dates as far back as slavery due to a legacy of systemic racism. Most notably, the 1932, Tuskegee Experiment, in which researchers tracked the progression of syphilis over several decades in hundreds of Black men. The Tuskegee Experiment was one of the country’s worst atrocities perpetrated on African Americans and is typically referenced in debates about governmental vaccine programs.
The COVID-19 vaccine is most definitely not an American experiment on people of color. The vaccine is one of the largest undertakings in modern medical history. It has been extensively tested for both safety and efficacy under the strict protocols and safety standards of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as governments and health organizations around the world.
In our country, thousands of African Americans have been involved at every level of its development from the very start. More than 250,000 people of all races, genders and ethnicities have participated in the clinical trials. And millions of people worldwide have taken the first and second doses of the vaccines with little to no reaction.
I am aware that there are still cultural and racial biases going on in health care in 2021. However, COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race, gender, financial status, or anything else. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is one of the best ways to level the field, protect yourself, your family and everyone around you from being exposed to the disease. The more people who are vaccinated against COVID-19, means there will be less disease in our communities and a better chance to return to normalcy. We simply cannot afford to sit this one out.
I am very proud to be a part of the Howard University community and our efforts to help raise awareness and educate local residents about the vaccine. This includes expanding vaccine access to underserved areas of the city to ensure that everyone has a chance to be vaccinated.
Both Howard University and Howard University Hospital are working in conjunction with the District of Columbia Department of Health (DC Health) and District of Columbia Hospital Association (DCHA) to safely implement an equitable and strategic COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. Promoting healthcare equality is a vital part of building trust and bridging communities that are often overlooked.
As for my own personal journey. It’s been almost four months since I got the shot. I am doing fine and have no reservations. If anyone asks why I took the shot, I tell them that I took the shot for my husband, my children and our grandchildren. I want to be able to visit, hug and love on them like we use to do prior to the virus.
I also took the shot to send a clear message that the vaccine is safe and effective. This is our only chance to save lives and put an end to this crippling pandemic. And lastly, I took the shot to encourage my staff at Howard University Hospital that I would never have any expectations of them that I haven’t already set for myself.
• Anita L.A. Jenkins is CEO of Howard University Hospital.
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