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In September, after the Food and Drug Administration authorized certain Covid-19 treatments seemingly based more on presidential puffery than on clinical data, some physicians decided to take matters into their own hands.

Specifically, the National Medical Association, a professional society of African American doctors, formed its own in-house FDA to vet the data when the official one seemed not to be. At first, the task force was framed as a stand-in — another instance in the long history of Black leaders stepping in where the government had failed. And eventually, its members did review the results and endorse the emergency authorizations for both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines.

But they’ve moved beyond mere recommendations. They’ve also taken on the slower, more painstaking work of building and maintaining patients’ trust in these vaccines. As Rodney Hood, one of the physicians on the NMA task force, put it, “We realize that Black people are at the highest risk for coronavirus but the least likely to want to take the vaccine, so we’re trying to reverse that.”

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Racism in the health care system is part of the reason that the NMA exists. The American Medical Association, which set standards for the profession, repeatedly denied membership to Black doctors — so in 1895, they founded a group of their own, “conceived in no spirit of racial exclusiveness, fostering no ethnic antagonisms, but born out of the exigency of the American environment.”

Combatting vaccine hesitancy is a natural fit. But it isn’t something that happens overnight — or even necessarily over the course of weeks, in part because of the implicit bias rooted in the history of American social services itself. Too often, the very words used to describe these dynamics — “health literacy,” say, or “adherence” — carry hints of blame or disdain or both.

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“You can’t look at that hesitancy at face value. Centuries of inhumanity — that’s not easily forgotten,” said Gabrielle Perry, a clinical epidemiologist who works at a private health system in New Orleans, who is not involved with the NMA. What she means is that American medicine has a long history of both abusing and excluding people of color.

“Medical professionals have to understand that the fear of Covid-19, which is this invisible looming foe, that fear does not always outweigh the very clear and well-documented danger of going to a health care system that has proven itself to be as deadly as disease,” Perry said. She pointed to the forced sterilization of poor, disabled, and Black women through much of the 20th century as just one of many examples.

Given that history, it’s perhaps not surprising that NMA task force members — in meetings and webinars organized with churches, universities, fraternities, sororities — often hear concerns about how the vaccine might affect fertility. “I’ve been on a town hall just about every day,” said NMA President Leon McDougle, a professor of family medicine and chief diversity officer at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “These convenings are also informing discussions with the pharmaceutical company scientists that are producing the vaccines, so that when we meet with them, these are questions we can ask.”

To McDougle and his colleagues, what’s important is hearing those questions without judgment, posing them to vaccine manufacturers, and then bringing back real, transparent answers to the next town hall.

“There was some concern that the vaccine was going to be geared to Blacks and that it would cause infertility. That was more of a myth, but we felt it was responsible to ask them about that,” explained Hood, a past president of the NMA and an internal medicine doctor at San Ysidro Health, in the San Diego area. “They said there was no data showing that.”

People have asked whether having certain conditions that disproportionately affect Black patients — sickle cell disease, for instance, and HIV — might affect the vaccine’s safety or efficacy. The task force has reported back, after meetings with Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, that the vaccine trials included participants with those illnesses, that no problems have arisen specifically in those subgroups, but that the members will keep following up with the companies as analyses become more and more fine-grained. “We’re having a conversation with the Black community,” McDougle said.

To those who study vaccine hesitancy, this sort of long-term, nonjudgmental back-and-forth seems promising. “Sometimes we do not listen to those who we want to serve,” said Fern Webb, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida’s Jacksonville campus — and that isn’t the case here.

But part of that listening also has to involve a more nuanced understanding of identity. As Ebony Toussaint, an adjunct professor and Ph.D. candidate studying health services at the University of Maryland pointed out, those who identify as Black encompass all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and identities, and to address all those communities as a single one is a mistake. “That would be like me saying, ‘I’m going to have a white outreach program,’” she said. “It would sound absolutely ludicrous.”

It’s a thought shared by many: The more personal and familiar the outreach, the more likely that it’ll work.

“When we look at all these online strategies — campaigns on social media, a chatbot — we don’t really know yet what is really effective,” said Ève Dubé, a senior researcher at the Québec National Institute of Public Health, and an invited professor of anthropology at Laval University. Because our opinions are often influenced more by our relationships than official public service announcements, to her, it’s best if the message is local, community-specific — even if that’s more expensive and time-consuming. “When it’s someone you know, your doctor, your nurse, your neighbor, your priest, we know that that’s what’s the most effective,” she said.

Yet all of these ideas are moot if people can’t access vaccines. As Oliver Brooks, chief medical officer of Watts Healthcare Corporation, a past president of the NMA, and a member of the task force, explained, “we need to ensure that the African American community and those that have challenges with transportation, health care, sick leave from work, and finances — that they have as much access as others. … There should be a nationally coordinated strategy.”

  • There foes not seem to be a REAL EFFECTIVE STRATEGY FOR THE ” FAIR” DISTRIBUTION OF THE VACCINE THAT IS AVAILABLE…..with a significant portion not receiving any vaccine until several months from now.
    WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO A 24/7 TIME FOR DISTRIBUTION…given the actual distribution has gone much slower than the planned?

  • They keep saying ” all the Data ” how much data can there be about long term?? It’s just common sense to speculative. Trust the experts….its covid they’re learning on us the mice. I bet every politician that took it first was a placebo. As Joe would say, Come on man.

  • I wonder if some if the questioning/distrust of the NMA of the FDA Emergency Use Authorization of the the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was really to have a group trusted by a vaccine-hesitant community say “we looked at the vaccine and it’s safe and effective. Please consider taking it.”
    It may not be in the medical books to stand on your head to get a patient to do that thing they are hesitant to do, but a good clinician will stand on their head if that’s what it takes to help their patients overcome hesitancy to anything that would help them.
    End the seriousness of the comment and shift to the outrageous for a bit of fun.
    Next project for the NMA: approve weed. Don’t go nuts, people.

  • I don’t trust these doctors because they won’t tell the whole truth. It’s propaganda to promote their interest and garner favor with their colleagues. Any doctor who refers to myself as *BLACK * is woefully ignorant. Science and medicine says skin is the integumentary system and is the bodies first line of defense. My skin is not black; it is melanin sufficient. My skin is brown and Caucasians are pink or palm colored(they are the color of the palms of every humans hands). So if these ignorant medical professionals continue to refer to people who look like me as black, which is a LIE, why should I trust them.

  • The Tuskegee Syphilis Study
    US Public Health Service enrolled 600 Black Men to infect with latent Syphilis disguise as an placebo…………….
    GTFOH !!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Come on man! Let’s not make this a racist thing. If we have to twist someone’s arm – white or brown or black – to take a potentially life-saving injection, ten there are plenty of people willing to wait on lines to get the vaccine. Personally, I think it should be mandatory at most workplaces and if you take any stimulus money or other benefit – i.e., unless you have a valid medical reason not to get it.
    Also, Biden and Harris have been vaccinated – publicly and on TV. Can’t speak about Cuomo.

    • It might be hard for employers to mandate a vaccine that is being used under Emergency Use Authorization. Once it’s FDA approved, things could get easier for employee mandates and liability for a potential bad outcome may be reduced.
      It will be interesting to see what the military does. Those folks have to take tons of shots. I don’t think the covid vaccine is required in the military, but I could see it being required once a vaccine is FDA approved and also fairly available to the public.
      The government may not want to shift too many vaccines to relatively young and healthy service members and cause high-risk civilians eager for the shot to go without.
      I would not be surprised if FDA approval was held up until the shot was available to give to the military without diverting from high-risk civilians. Also fairly confident that key military personnel likely have already had access to the shot.

  • Not mentioned in this article is that fact that candidate Biden, candidate Harris and Governor Cuomo spent most of September and October claiming that all sorts of corners were being cut in the development, testing and approval of these vaccines. They explicitly said they would not trust any vaccine developed while Trump was President. Now black people listen to and trust these particular politicians (as evidenced by over 90% of the black vote supporting them). So part of the vaccine hesitancy amount the black communities is certainly due to the reckless and wildly irresponsibly statements made by these politicians with absolutely no evidence to support them. I suggest the President, Vice President and Gov Cuomo make some public service spots apologizing for lying about the vaccines and assuring their supporters that the vaccines are indeed safe.

    • Reluctance to trust medical establishment and QA of vaccine is rooted in historic well-documented racial disparity in healthcare. Once Trump heard majority of deaths were minorities (many essential workers) in blue states, meager efforts diminished even further.

      No one in US history has been more reckless or wildly irresponsible – 30+K lies, no national plan or empathy while shilling false cures. More than a stretch to point out Sept and Oct statements by Democrats as cause of distrust.

      IMO, Blacks (Clyburn, Abrams, % of POTUS voters, GA grass roots) saved our democracy so happy to see focus on their treatment – wish black MD group success in gaining support of black communities.

    • Actually, they said they would follow the scientists and if Scientists (like Fauci) deemed it safe then they would take the vaccine. This has nothing to do with why some African American are reluctant to take it. It based on their own medical concerns not a political statement. Don’t bring divisive politics into this. The doctors are trying to get medical science communicated to inform and reassure.

    • You profess to speak for Black people and their hesitancy regarding the Covid vaccination. You do not speak for ME.
      Keep in mind that Dr Fauci has remained a source of informed decision making and development of the much needed vaccines that Trump and his administration lied about the necessity for such protections.
      I know you’re floundering around looking for your leader but, as usual he’s looking out for himself. HAPPY HUNTING..

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