As COVID-19 vaccine distribution began in the Inland Empire, two organizations, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement and Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches, hosted a virtual event on December 16. They brought the faith and science communities together to address fears and help the African American community make an informed decision about the vaccine.
Loma Linda University Associate Professor of Psychology, Dr. Bridgette Peteet, told the virtual audience that these days on the rare occasion she is actually out in public, she likes to ask other Black people questions to see how they feel about the vaccine.
“You know, what are the fears, [and] what is happening in terms of people’s mindsets,” said Peteet.
Sure enough, a very familiar narrative comes up of not trusting the government and more specifically the Tuskegee Syphillis Study which Peteet said, "is still lingering in our minds."
The infamous forty-year study done between the 1930s and 70s, is known for its unethical experimentation on African American patients in the rural south. The U.S. government invited men with syphillis to particpate in a free healthcare program, where they were told they would receive treatment. Instead they received placebos so that the course of the disease could be studied. 15 years into the study a cure was found, but none of the participants received it.
“We have a history that is sorted with healthcare and science, and that’s not just from what we know historically but also some of our own experiences," said Peteet.
To this day, studies have shown racism and bias still exist in patient care for Black Americans. Peteet said all of these traumas raise a lot of legitimate concerns.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions and we can’t sort of process information and incorporate that into our ideas, to make healthcare decisions that can benefit ourselves and others,” said Peteet.
She said she wants people to remember that ethically, medical research has moved far away from the shady past of Tuskegee, and is now heavily regulated and monitored. She also said having an uncle that is an inspector for Operation Warp Speed personally gives her confidence.
Another speaker, Dr. Mark McKenzie, has been studying the new vaccine as an official investigator, making sure it is safe and tracking patient outcomes. He said yes, the record-breaking development seems fast but it can be trusted.
“So the people who you’ve seen get the vaccine on the news were not actually the first," said McKenzie. "You’ve had thousands of people who’ve actually gone through that and were monitored in good conditions to make sure we see what’s going on.”
In phase three of the trial, Pfizer had around 43,000 people worldwide and Moderna had 30,000. In the U.S., about a third of those were people from ethnic minority groups. Also, he said the vaccine went through the same approval process that all prescription drugs and vaccines go through. It’s so rigorous, historically 70 percent of clinical trials fail to make it to market.
“You can’t go to the next phase without getting that approval presented to the FDA and an independent review to prove it," said McKenzie. "And we have to identify every single side effect in there to show we’ve actually considered why these things are an option, why it’s ok to take, why we think it’s safe, why we are not causing more harm than we are benefits.”
At the end of the event, Dr. Peteet brought her daughter on screen to share their family motto about fear, "be afraid and do it anyway," as a message of encouragment.
"Hopefully some of the information tonight has gotten you to think a little bit about where you are and where you want to be with this vaccine,” said Pettet.
As part of the summit, Dr. Peteet and her colleagues from Loma Linda took a survey to see how likely attendees are to get the vaccine. Preliminary results showed at the beginning of the event, close to 40 percent said they would definitely take the vaccine. By the end, that number jumped by a little over 12 percent, to over 50 percent of those who responded.