It’s finally happening. After nine grueling months, more than 17 million positive cases, and over 300,000 deaths, we have something in our arsenal to help us fight COVID-19. The recent announcement, of the emergency approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine was a bittersweet moment this past week. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine met the statutory criteria for use, we know that other companies are already in the pipeline for review and emergency approval as well.
Nearly three-million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine developed were made available around the nation, this week. If Moderna’s vaccine is approved, that would put nearly six-million more vaccines in the mix. We have a way to go, before everyone that wants a vaccine can get a vaccine. And deep within that last sentence lies a problem. How many people will take the vaccine? Will political ideology dictate who interprets the vaccine as helpful or a hoax? Will race or ethnicity define how the vaccine and those that administer it are viewed? These questions don’t seem to have been fully fleshed out by Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” in the race to secure a vaccine for COVID-19. Yet a vaccine is of no consequence, if people won’t take it.
While we’ve seen videos and media stories about the many health care professionals, essential workers and vulnerable individuals taking the vaccine, there are many communities saying “not so fast.” The African American and Black communities are probably the loudest in their skepticism or outright refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The storied history of medical maltreatment, malpractice and malfeasance toward Black people, in this country, is well known. While the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is often cited, we know that mistrust by Blacks of the medical community far predates the Tuskegee Experiment. We often heard the saying, “I forgive you, but I won’t forget.” Well, Black folks haven’t forgotten. As a nation, we could pay a steep price for those memories, unless we do more to change heath care inequities and increase the number of Black health care providers and scientists.
It was a good start to see Black doctors such as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who was among the National Institutes of Health scientists that helped to develop and produce the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. It matters that James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College was a member of the FDA panel that is making emergency use decisions. You can’t get around the fact that representation matters. Whether in the stem fields, classrooms, legislature or the courts, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geographic and cultural background, diversity is necessary and often required. We have to demonstrate whether in health care, justice, education or employment all are valued and have a seat at the table. Truth be told, if we look in our own backyard, we have a lot of work to do in Wisconsin to expand the stem table.