Opinion: A doctor moves from “no” to “yes” on vaccine

Ultimately, I concluded that the consequences likely to come from the virus would be much more harmful to me than any potential long-term risk from the vaccine.

Right now, people of color across this nation are weighing whether they will be vaccinated, and much skepticism still exists. Although I may be a physician who has received vaccinations all her life -- I’ve had my kids and patients vaccinated over several decades -- I admit that I’ve also had to think long and hard about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

You could even say I started in the “hell no” box due to the serious questions I had about the vaccine and its safety and efficacy under the previous administration and heightened social injustices in 2020.

However, as a Black American, part of my calculus was also that I had to carefully weigh the risks for more-severe illness should I be exposed to the coronavirus itself. In my family alone, we’ve lost 10 people. Sadly, this is not unusual. According to the Centers for Disease Control, individuals from Black, Latino, native and indigenous communities are nearly three times more likely to die of COVID-19 and four times as likely to be hospitalized as white people.

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Dr. Rhonda Medows

Credit: contributed

Dr. Rhonda Medows

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Rhonda Medows

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Ultimately, I concluded that the consequences likely to come from the virus would be much more harmful to me than any potential long-term risk from the vaccine. What further persuaded me to take the COVID-19 vaccination was the reassurance that scientists – not politicians – were the ones determining the effectiveness and short-term safety of the vaccine.

Addressing valid questions and concerns

The ugly history of what’s happened to people of color with regards to medical research in this country cannot be erased or ignored. If you don’t believe that your government cares about you, cares about your health and well-being and your safety, then you’re less likely to be open to a government-funded, government-sponsored vaccine program. That’s the reality. According to the latest polling, only 59% of Black respondents said they would plan to get the coronavirus vaccine. While it’s understandable why such hesitancy may exist, we also cannot lose sight of the fact that getting vaccinated is the only way out of this pandemic.

As a mother of three, I am well aware that younger adults of color, including my three sons, have their own reservations when it comes to getting vaccinated. Like me, they are all too familiar with both the racial disparities magnified by the pandemic and the enduring legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis study and other inhuman experiments perpetrated against people of color. While they continue to feel the heat of racial injustice pervading society, they also understand that we can’t move past where we are today unless we are immune to the virus itself.

My approach with them is the same one that I’ve taken for decades with my patients as a statewide public health official and industry leader. People need to feel and be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. They also must be provided all the factual information. There can be no sugar-coating. We must listen to people’s questions and concerns about the vaccine, and we cannot be dismissive. We also need to be completely truthful and honest in our answers about what we know and don’t know. Transparency is essential.

Bring the vaccine to people where they are

Keeping me up at night right now is my concern that too many of our states are failing to build racial equity into their vaccine distribution plans. One needn’t look further than the fact that race and ethnicity data is missing for nearly half of coronavirus vaccine recipients, a reality that makes it that much harder for the Biden Administration and others to correct disparities. Based on the data we do have, we know that Black Americans and other people of color are being vaccinated at rates of up to three times lower than white people (despite suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 and its devastating effects). Unless these imbalances are right-sized, the already stark racial divide in deaths from COVID-19 will grow even wider as a larger share of the population becomes vaccinated and the far more contagious variants take hold.

Our public officials must also ensure that the distribution of the vaccine is fair and equitable. We need vaccine clinics set up where people can access them in a variety of ways, while at the same time ensure that their hours can accommodate everyone in our communities. That could mean partnering with community health centers, working with churches, or setting up mobile vaccination sites in medically underserved areas. Staffers should be equipped with plain language and translated public health materials. This must be coupled with a comprehensive educational campaign in which trusted messengers speak to the vaccine’s safety and benefits — whether through social media or the old-fashioned ways of flyers and pastors leading their congregations.

The bottom line is that our communities have experienced far too much suffering. We must break this pandemic’s stranglehold on our families and communities and getting vaccinated is the only way. I did it and so should you.

Rhonda Medows, M.D., is president of population health at Providence St. Joseph Health, the nation’s third-largest nonprofit health system. Now living in Seattle, she is a Morehouse School of Medicine graduate and former member of its board of trustees. Medows was commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Health from 2005 to 2010.