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COVID town hall takes on vaccine concerns in the Black community

What’s fueling COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy? How can we encourage more people to get the shots? Experts from USC and beyond answered the most pressing vaccination questions at a recent town hall.

by Leigh Hopper

Joyce Richey knows at least 30 people who have died from COVID-19 — family members, friends and associates.

“It’s very real and very personal for me,” said Richey, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. A passionate diabetes educator and researcher, Richey is pivoting to COVID.

Like diabetes, COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the Black community. And although Black Americans are suffering higher rates of severe disease and death during the pandemic, they are receiving COVID vaccines at a dramatically lower rate than white Americans.

That’s why Richey took part in a recent Black History Month town hall on the COVID-19 vaccine: to dispel misinformation and to encourage people to get the shots.

Other town hall presenters included Richard Dang, assistant professor at the USC School of Pharmacy and director of USC’s community-based pharmacy residency program, and David Carlisle, president of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, a historically Black graduate institution in Los Angeles. John Carpten, USC professor and chair of translational genomics, moderated the event. Here are some highlights:

What do you say to someone who wants to wait a while before getting vaccinated, to make sure the vaccines are safe?

Dang: The number of participants in the clinical trials for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines was magnitudes larger than the number of people who normally participate in a vaccine trial. Moderna alone had 30,000 in its clinical trial and Pfizer had 40,000. Just to compare, for a vaccine like the one for shingles, only 10,000 to 20,000 people participated in that trial.

Carlisle: We’ve given millions and millions of doses. Allergic reactions have happened only very, very infrequently, and vaccine sites are standing by with interventions if that happens. If you have questions about whether you should be vaccinated, ask your doctor. Even with risk factors, the answer is almost uniformly yes, because COVID-19 is a killer. It is a clear and present danger.

What do you say to people concerned that the vaccine development process was rushed?

Dang: I asked the same questions as well. I learned that no steps were skipped during the vaccine development process. Every single step that you would normally expect with a traditional vaccine was completed. We built upon our previous knowledge and technology from the SARS and MERS viruses.

How does the vaccine work, in simple terms?

Carlisle: Basically, what a vaccine is doing is preparing your body for when it is faced with something dangerous. Ordinarily, your body would mount an immune response, but in this case, it might not be enough to fight off the infection.

The COVID-19 vaccine allows you to develop that immune response earlier and more effectively. And it focuses on a specific agent, the novel coronavirus. We’re taking your body’s natural defenses and amplifying them to make them more effective.

What do you hear in the Black community about why people are hesitant to be vaccinated?

Richey: It is very common to hear within our faith-based communities that we are protected, that we are ‘covered with the blood of Jesus’ and basically no harm will come to us because of this. I’m a Christian and I understand this mindset. But I say, ‘God also gives us wisdom so that we will not just put ourselves in harm’s way.’

Is mistrust of the U.S. medical establishment contributing to vaccine hesitancy?

Richey: Something that’s always discussed is the Tuskegee syphilis study. This is where, of course, Black males who had syphilis were observed [by researchers]. When treatment was discovered, they were not informed so they could not take advantage. They were allowed to suffer, even though there was a therapeutic available.

In today’s context, we are suffering from COVID-19 at an alarming rate. We know that a treatment is available in terms of a vaccine and being vaccinated. But we are refusing, for whatever reason, to take advantage of that treatment. We’re not being denied — we are denying ourselves.

Is lack of access to vaccines contributing to the problem?

Dang: It is a frustrating process all around. There’s such a limited supply, and there are millions of people trying to go onto one website to access a finite number of appointments. We need to do better, and we can do better.

The city of Los Angeles is providing vaccinations at Crenshaw Christian Center, Hanson Dam, San Fernando Valley Park, Lincoln Park. They are launching mobile vaccination clinics, beginning at Baldwin Hills Mall.

What’s the best way to find a vaccine?

Dang: I really like this website called VaccinateCA, a community-driven resource. The County of Los Angeles Public Health website also highlights vaccines available in a variety of places. People who don’t have access to a computer can call 833-540-0473 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. seven days a week.

Have you been vaccinated yourself?

Richey: I just personally completed my two doses. And each time I sent a video of my experience to my entire family, because it all starts at home.

I wanted them to witness that I felt that this vaccine is safe. Then, trusting me, they would say, “Oh, if she’s doing it, it’s okay. I’m going to do it as well.’


About the town hall: The COVID-19 town hall drew more than 200 viewers; a recording of the event can be viewed here. For updates or for more information about future town halls, contact nicki.karimipour@med.usc.edu.

Moderator John Carpten was gratified to find out that some viewers scheduled vaccinations after the COVID town hall.

“It is my hope that we follow up with similar collaborations in the not-too-distant future,” Carpten said. “This event with our community partners is among the most impactful that I have ever participated in.”

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