COVID -19 Vaccine Acceptance: A Black physician’s plea to the Black community

OPINION: Despite skepticism of the medical profession in Black communities, Dr. Florencia Greer Polite says getting a vaccine is a matter of life and death

Dr. Florencia Greer Polite receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020.

As I walked to the top floor of the Perelman Center to receive the novel COVID-19 vaccine, I was filled with an emotion I had not felt in some time: hope. Yet there was something else on my mind at that moment as a physician of African descent: Tuskegee.

I told my colleague that while our country could never undo the harm it caused to the many families directly and indirectly affected by the inhumane acts of the Tuskegee syphilis experimentation, my hope was that this iteration of scientific discovery would be restorative.

Read More: People 75 and older, essential workers next in line for vaccine: CDC

Black Americans have expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine that needs to be confronted head-on.  Make no mistake, this reluctance is well deserved. The medical profession has a long history of mistreatment of Blacks at the hands of those who have taken an oath to “first do no harm.” 

(Photo: Pixaby)

Most notably physicians have shown a disregard for the health of the Black community through the Tuskegee experiments but more commonly, in the number of ways that health disparities exist in our country (with worse survival rates for almost every cancer, delays in treatment for common medical disorders, and the ravaging effects of COVID-19 and its 2-3-fold increased mortality among African Americans).

The COVID-19 vaccine has the opportunity to either further exacerbate the effects of this devastating disease or begin to close the gap in this most recent example of health-care disparities. Notably, our Black community deserves accurate information about the vaccine and its side effects, including: 

  • The fact that the vaccine is not a live virus vaccine, and thus, is not giving its recipients COVID.
  • The manufacturers reported 95% efficacy of the vaccine based on clinical trials.
  • The initial study group of 30,000 participants found few side effects as the non-mRNA vaccine components are found in most packaged medications.
  • If there was real concern about the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, medical professionals who are currently under-staffed in our fight against COVID, would not volunteer to be the first group to receive the vaccine under the Emergency Use Authorization.

Masking and social distancing will be necessary until our community develops herd immunity — the result of a high proportion of individuals becoming immune to the disease, most often through vaccination. Medical decisions almost always lie in the evaluation of the risks versus benefits. In this case, we are being asked to weigh the risks of contracting COVID-19 versus the risks of receiving the vaccine.  

(Photo by Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)

While many people who contract COVID-19 will only suffer mild effects, our current death toll of over 315,000 in the USA illustrates its deadly potential. And for Blacks, there are a number of social determinants of health that lead to a disproportionate number of fatal cases, including crowded work environments and living conditions, reliance on public transportation systems, decreased access to quality care, and lack of health insurance.

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are meant to stimulate an immune response that can temporarily cause one to feel sore arms, fevers, chills, or headaches. In reality, feeling a little sick from the vaccine is not comparable to the potential deadly effects of COVID-19 itself. 

As a frontline healthcare worker, I have seen the devastating effects of the coronavirus over the last 9 months.  I have mourned the loss of family members, friends and patients, too young to have succumbed so quickly to the perils of this virus. Thus, I welcomed the opportunity to become vaccinated early. 

(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Like many Black physicians, I have been vocal about the need to address our community directly: to own the past mistakes of the medical profession, to acknowledge the current disparities that exist in healthcare and to share with our community why we think this vaccine is not only important, but vital in the efforts to decrease the destruction of the coronavirus.  

I trust the science behind the vaccine and I hope that when the time comes for the vaccine to become available to the public, that my community will be ready to trust the medical profession again. I can only imagine the devastation if we opt out of this scientific revelation. 

Dr. Florencia Greer Polite is an Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics & Gynecology and Chief of the Division of General OBGYN at the University of Pennsylvania – Perelman School of Medicine.  She has served on the front-line caring for patients with COVID-19 at Penn Medicine.

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