(Photo from Salem Baptist Church's Facebook page)
“Yes!” the COVID-19 vaccine is safe.
That was the emphatic answer to the first question put to Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC). Dr. Stanford was one of five panelists at Thursday night’s “Facts Not Fear: COVID-19 Vaccines and the Black Community.” The virtual town hall was sponsored by the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, the BDCC and local NAACP chapters.
The goal was to dispel resistance in the Black community to the vaccines and to address a long history of mistrust of medical authorities.
Last April, Dr. Stanford and her team began providing free COVID-19 testing to African Americans at the peak of the pandemic. Reports showed that minorities were contracting and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups. Yet, according to Stanford, testing was scarce, and treatment was delayed, leading to increased fatalities. “People were dying in waiting rooms,” she said. Now, in addition to free testing, the Consortium provides free Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in Philadelphia.
Historical mistreatment and healthcare disparities loom like an ominous cloud when attempting to assuage fears in the Black community regarding the vaccines. And while she understands the hesitancy, Dr. Stanford says getting the vaccine should not be debated.
“Everyone has to ask, is it riskier to contract the virus or take the vaccine,” said Dr. Stanford. “You don’t know if you will be mild, asymptomatic, in the hospital or someone who doesn’t survive,” she added.
Local NAACP representatives urged the board to invite clergy to the panel, as faith leaders can be very influential in the African American community.
Reverend Marshall Mitchell, was one of the panelists. The pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Abington said he was vaccinated because he trusts the science. He also spoke of a personal trust in the service Dr. Stanford is providing the Black community. “I think people should be guarded but know that there’s also a lot of misinformation out there,” he said.
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Rev, Mitchell shared that after his first dose, “I felt like I’d gotten hit by a ton of bricks. But when I weigh how I felt momentarily versus the protection I believe I have now, I’d do it over and over again,” he said.
Dr. Valerie A. Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners was another panelist and stressed that the most important fact is that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are “100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.”
Reverend Charles W. Quann, a third panelist and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Ambler, has undergone cancer treatment and wears a pacemaker. At his physician’s advice, he too was vaccinated. After his first dose, he reported no side effects at all and does not anticipate any adverse reaction to his second dose scheduled for next month. (Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are administered in a two-dose process.)
Other questions raised were:
- Who should or should not get the vaccine
- Should you get the vaccine if you have already had COVID
- What are the long-term effects of the vaccine
But officials have more to conquer than vaccine hesitancy.
There is a tremendous gap in demand versus supply. Dr. Arkoosh said that over 80,000 people have registered for only 17,000 dosages in Montgomery County. In Philadelphia, Dr. Stanford said they have received 1,000 doses (500 for each portion of the full dose) for 16,000 people who have preregistered.
Another complication is the variance in vaccine administration from county to county. Philadelphia is vaccinating essential workers, while Montgomery County is following completely different criteria, which as Pastor Quann notes may again “push minorities to the back of the line.”
Some citizens remain cautious. Gigi, a Haitian American mother who is lactating and is generally vaccine-wary said, “The science is still evolving. Very well-intentioned and informed people are only going with what we know now.”
Joseph, is African American, has high blood pressure and lost his vision due to a brain injury. He said he would rather make lifestyle changes to remove himself from the high-risk category rather than get vaccinated.
Dr. Stanford admitted to struggling with taking the vaccine. She contracted COVID-19 in August “It was a heavy weight but I needed people to know that as a wife, mother and so much to other people, I wouldn’t put something in my body that would take me away from them,” she said.
To hear the town hall in its entirety visit the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3t1crEfSnA-30-
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