A panel held by the U.Va. Black Faculty and Staff Employee Resource Group on Thursday discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the Black community, issues concerning distrust and misinformation about the vaccine, ways of increasing accessibility to it and steps for moving forward. The Resource Group serves as a representative voice for Black faculty and staff on academic and intellectual issues as well as emotional betterment within and beyond the University community.
Panelists included Dr. Taison Bell, director of University hospital's Intensive Care Unit; Employee Assistance Consultant Dominique Laughlin; Robert Gray and Derek Rush, co-presidents of the Conscious Capitalist Foundation; and Alvin Edwards, pastor at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church.
The panel started with a question from moderator Tabiyah Morris about the trends and themes seen in how COVID-19 has affected Black people in the United States. The panelists agreed that there had been disproportionately heavy losses for Black Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans have died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans.
According to the Blue Ridge Health District’s portal, Black individuals make up 12 percent of COVID-19 cases, 31 percent of hospitalizations and 21.9 percent of fatalities.
Bell talked about how Black people have experienced lower rates of testing and lower access to healthcare in comparison to white communities. He emphasized that the narrative of Black populations being more “vulnerable” in the face of the pandemic is a false one and encouraged pushback on the idea because of the strength and resilience he had observed among Black communities in light of the pandemic.
“Community is the root of how we nurture ourselves,” Bell said.
The panelists also brought up the loss of many loved ones and increasing social disconnect accompanied with isolation.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year for all of us,” Laughlin said. “Although we’re making strides to some sort of improvement in the form of a vaccine, it doesn’t dismiss the fact that there’s been an incredibly large amount of loss.”
Bell hailed the positive effects of the fast-moving vaccination process in the United States thus far, noting that Black Americans from diverse populations have received the vaccine and it has been seen that it is highly effective. He said, however, that Black people in the United States today are still not receiving the vaccine at the rates that they should be.
To explain this, he cited reasons such as distrust of the government and medical establishments among many Black communities as well as a large information gap concerning the virus and the vaccine.
One of the largest reasons for this distrust, Bell said, is the lack of accessibility to the vaccine among Black people.
“Access dictates behavior,” Bell said. “We make decisions based on enthusiasm and our access to the resource in question. If vaccines are available in communities, and people see the people around them getting vaccinated, they will be more likely to agree to get it.”
Gray and Rush cited historical contexts and unethical medical experimentation on Black people as the reason for distrust among many Black people of the government and medical establishments.
They referenced the Tuskegee Experiment that ended in 1972, in which the government withheld a cure for syphilis from a group of Black men so that the health effects of the infection could be studied more in depth. Both expressed doubts about the vaccine by asking questions about its side effects and the issue of accountability in the event of long-term impacts caused by the vaccine.
Bell reassured doubts about the mistrust of the government due to historical unethical experimentation, citing the safeguards that are now in place to prevent that from happening, including the Data and Safety Monitoring Board, an independent committee that oversees and monitors clinical trials to ensure participant safety and the validity and integrity of the data.
One question from Rush focused on whether there was an incentive for young, healthy people at low-risk for suffering from severe symptoms and dying from coronavirus to take the vaccine. While Bell agreed that, with young people, the chances of suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms are smaller, he cited important reasons to take the vaccine anyway.
“Even if you are healthy, there may be people around you who aren’t as healthy,” Bell said. “The reason COVID-19 has spread so much is because people who don’t know they have it are spreading it to other people. Getting the vaccine decreases the chance of this happening.”
In response to a question about the long-term side effects of taking the vaccine, Bell explained the structure of the vaccine and showed how it would be nearly impossible for these to happen because the components of the vaccine break down within the body within a few days. He explained that the protective mRNA that provides immunity is produced by the body itself.
An audience question asked about the recent categorization of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the company Johnson & Johnson as a safe and effective preventive measure, asking how this will influence access and equity for Black Americans. Panelists were optimistic that this vaccine, if approved, would increase access to a COVID-19 vaccine in rural areas that are generally harder to reach because it is easier to store and requires only one dose, in contrast to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which require storage at lower temperatures and are administered in two doses.
One important recommendation made by Bell to further access to the vaccine among Black populations in need of it was to modify the age restrictions for receiving the vaccine in Black communities. Currently, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccine rollout recommendations list people aged 75 and older as part of one of the second priority groups — regardless of differing life expectancies for certain demographic groups.
“Life expectancy [among Black people] is already lower,” Bell said. “They are dying at the equivalent age of white people ten years older than them.”
For this reason, he said, the government needs to lower age restrictions for vaccine provision for Black communities so that there is a more equitable and far-reaching distribution.
The panelists emphasized the need to abate misinformation and distrust about the COVID-19 vaccines among the Black community so that they will increasingly accept it, improve public health and reduce deaths. Solutions suggested were more community conversations about the pandemic and the vaccine, such as the one hosted by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and to use such local resources to get accurate information to people.
Gray and Rush asked how the pharmaceutical industries and medical establishments plan to allay the historical distrust of many Black people towards them and repair their relationship with Black communities.
Bell suggested a more community-based approach for this in contrast to the traditional method of powerful organizations, such as pharmaceutical industries and state health departments, dictating and influencing methodologies without any partnerships or consultation with communities.
“We need to start leveraging and getting into communities and using people who’ve been doing groundwork, to involve them and hear their opinions about how to involve the community and reach more people,” Bell said.
Edwards also supported the idea of work being done in the community, pointing towards social media as an effective tool to reach as many people as possible. He also mentioned that the church's website is a good resource, and volunteers are reaching out not only to Black and Brown communities but also Latinx communities in Charlottesville to let as many people as possible know about important resources, information about the vaccine and how to register and get access to the vaccine.
Laughlin took care to emphasize that there were still multiple barriers, such as transportation issues, that diverse groups of Black people face when trying to get access to vaccination.
"[There] should be discussions about how to get better access to people who are elderly, not mobile, need special transportation modalities ... [They also] need to be considered," Laughlin said.
She also pointed the audience to the resources offered by the University Faculty and Employee Assistance Program, a program that provides professional services for a wide variety of personal issues, including a multitude of resources to deal with emotional wellness and stress management strategies.