The COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging our society demonstrates starkly that our system is not working as it should. Our society needs trusted institutions and individuals in efforts to achieve the levels of vaccination needed to successfully end the pandemic.
In 2020, we saw the remarkable development of vaccines for the COVID-19 virus with strong scientific rigor and high ethical standards in record time. But the resulting vaccines have been met with a high degree of skepticism, suspicion, and mistrust by our citizens, especially people of color (Black, Latino and Native Americans). Thus, these scientific and technological developments are in danger of not achieving their purpose because of mistrust, misinformation and misunderstanding among Americans. A clear need in 2021 and beyond is better health literacy and improved health behavior of our citizens. Public health professionals have emphasized the substantial gains to be made in extending our years of healthy life, along with significant reductions in illness and injury.
Good health outcomes for Americans in 2021 depend upon sound scientific knowledge of human biology and trusted, effective communications between our nation’s health professionals and our populations.
An excellent example of such an effort began in New York City on Jan. 26 with a community-based organization named Choose Healthy Life. This organization is being led by Ms. Debra Frasier Howze, a community organizer in Brooklyn. She has recruited a number of Black clergy and their churches in New York, Newark, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta to work with Black health professionals in their cities.
The initiative includes health navigators to work in Black communities to increase the level of COVID-19 vaccination by building knowledge, trust and understanding about the vaccine, and to address other health and social needs of the individuals. Co-Chairing this national effort to utilize Black Clergy and their churches are, Rev. Calvin Butts III of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York and Rev. Al Sharpton of National Action Network. In Atlanta, Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church is leading the vaccination effort, with nine other Black ministers in Atlanta, and their churches.
Vaccinations began at Abyssinian on Jan. 26 and are proceeding at other churches around the country in February. The plan is to extend this vaccination network with Black churches nationwide. The goal of this initiative is to increase the level of vaccination in marginalized communities by improving knowledge, understanding and trust in the vaccine and in the nation’s health care system.
Other national efforts to enhance trust in the vaccines and increase COVID-19 vaccination rates in marginalized communities include those of the National Medical Association (a professional society of Black physicians) and a statement by the Black members of the National Academy of Medicine.
These vaccination efforts reflect the present need for help from trusted institutions and individuals in marginalized communities to produce effective communications, accurate information and appropriate responses to the current pandemic.
But the crisis we confront today demonstrates the urgent need for a long range, robust commitment to strengthening our public health system-- local, state, national, and international. This means having sufficient trained personnel, programs, and equipment to be better prepared for future pandemics. It also means investing to increase the health literacy of our populations with strong health education and health promotion/disease prevention efforts in our society. The return on such investments will be improved health of our citizens and a stronger economy.
Our current pandemic has illustrated dramatically the humanitarian crisis and the economic damage which can occur when we do not have a strong public health system.
In the United States, the 20th century brought remarkable advances in the sciences including our enhanced ability to diagnose and treat disease and disability. In the 21st century we must build upon this success. This means improving our public health systems to keep us healthy and safe from future pandemics and other threats to our well-being.
Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., is president emeritus, Morehouse School of Medicine, and was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 1989-1993.