Opinion: How we can show hesitant Black D.C. residents that coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective
Dora Taylor-Lowe, communications director for D.C.’s Department of Human Services, receives the covid-19 vaccine from Juliet Dankwah, a DHS nurse, at an outdoor tented clinic in D.C. in February. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Opinion by Lisa K. Fitzpatrick and Michelle McMurry-Heath
March 26, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. EDT
Lisa K. Fitzpatrick is founder and chief executive of Grapevine Health and a health innovator fellow at the Aspen Institute. Michelle McMurry-Heath is president and chief executive of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
Black Americans are dying at nearly twice the rate of White Americans from the coronavirus. In the nation’s capital, about 75 percent of coronavirus deaths are among Black Americans — despite making up less than half of the population. So, it’s particularly troubling that 44 percent of Black D.C. residents say they won’t get vaccinated.
As Black doctors and voices within the health-care community, we have a responsibility to address these views about vaccines.
Among Black people who are unsure, the most common two reasons given are worries about side effects and a desire to see how other people respond to the vaccine. These are perfectly reasonable concerns; no one wants to be a guinea pig.
The reality is that the vaccines have been thoroughly tested, shown to be safe and are virtually 100 percent effective at preventing deaths and hospitalizations.
We desperately need a nationwide educational outreach effort to convey that message — not just from doctors like us but also from traditional Black community pillars such as pastors and even barbers.
First, our outreach must make clear that millions of Americans have already been vaccinated with positive results. More than 110,000 Americans participated in clinical trials for the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — the three vaccines authorized for use in the United States.
More than 400 million doses have been administered to patients around the world in recent weeks, including more than 120 million in the United States.
To put it bluntly, anyone receiving the shot today has a great deal of information to turn to regarding safety and efficacy.
Second, our advocacy must do a better job explaining how safety is a priority throughout every stage of the vaccine development process, from research and testing to regulatory approvals. Even after a vaccine is widely available, scientists continuously monitor for any potential side effects.
The clinical trial process includes several independent checks and balances well before a vaccine reaches patients. For example, data safety monitoring boards — composed of biologists, immunologists, statisticians and other health professionals — analyze clinical trial data and offer unbiased advice about how a trial should move forward, if at all.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration won’t approve a vaccine — including granting emergency use authorization — unless independent experts deem it safe and effective following extensive trials and data analysis.
In these conversations, we can also point toward unbiased data. Evidence-based websites, such as that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CovidVaccineFacts.org, which the Biotechnology Innovation Organization recently launched, allow people to find answers to their vaccine-related questions from trusted experts. Individuals can then draw their own informed conclusions about the vaccines.
Third, we must do a better job showcasing the diverse participation in the development process.
When it comes to testing, consider that minority communities — Asian, Latino and Black — made up more than 35 percent of U.S. clinical trial participants for the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. It’s also worth noting that several members of the FDA committee that reviewed vaccine data in the approval process were Black.
Fortunately, vaccine hesitancy in the Black community has steadily declined over the past few months. In Maryland’s majority-Black Prince George’s County, for instance, residents want to get vaccinated, but they lack access to the technology they need to sign up.
But this decrease in hesitancy isn’t an excuse for complacency. We must continue investing in widespread education, so every person has the information he or she needs to understand the vaccines. The reality is that the Black community is being hit harder by the disease, so our uptake needs to be higher.
We cannot afford to continue letting D.C.’s predominantly Black neighborhoods lag behind. Up to this point, just 5.4 percent and 3.9 percent of residents in Wards 7 and 8, respectively, have been fully vaccinated — compared with 11 percent of residents in Ward 3.
Achieving equity in coronavirus outcomes requires broad vaccine acceptance within the Black community. That starts with getting the facts into trusted hands within Black communities.