Preventive Health

African American leadership in COVID-19 vaccines

Did you know that the scientific lead on the team that developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines is an African American woman?

Her name is Kizzmekia Corbett. She’s a 35-year-old viral immunologist with the National Institutes of Health and works with the Coronavirus Team in the Vaccine Research Center.

John Hobbs, MD, is an OSF Medical Group physician. He also is a Black man trying to convince skeptical people in the African American community to get vaccinated. He tells Kizzmekia’s story to strengthen his message.

“When I say an African American female had a primary hand in creating the Moderna vaccine, a number of people are amazed,” Dr. Hobbs said.

He shows them the news reports of Kizzmekia’s accomplishments and the high regard for her within the research community. Then he delivers the money line.

“What makes you think that an African American of this stature would do something to kill Blacks? Get real.”

Tragic history leads to hesitancy

For much of the Black community, COVID-19 is not the only issue here.

“When COVID-19 started, all we heard was that more were dying in the African American community,” Dr. Hobbs said. “There’s a reason the impact is greatest there, and it comes from health care disparities. The reason is because we were neglected in the first place. The disparities should have been addressed first of all.”

Black Americans’ general reluctance to be vaccinated is rooted in a tragic history of medical mistreatment, sometimes sanctioned by our government. Other factors include limited or inconsistent access to health care and a shortage of Black doctors.

The result shows up in statistics. A recent study by the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) found that people from racial and ethnic minority populations are more likely to have increased COVID-19 disease severity compared to non-Hispanic white people. That means an increased likelihood of hospital admission, intensive care and death.

Yet, a poll by the National Research Corporation (NRC) reveals that Black people are far less likely than whites to get vaccinated.

More than half of Blacks in the poll expressed at least some uncertainty about the vaccines, including 22% who said they will not get vaccinated. The latter figure is almost double the percentage of non-Hispanic whites who say they won’t get the shots.

Credible role models are vital

“Organizations that are trying to lead have to understand that you can’t just send anybody into the African American community and start to holler about what’s good for their community,” Dr. Hobbs said.

Black voices are instrumental in conveying the urgency to get vaccinated. That’s why the prominent role of Kizzmekia Corbett is so important. It’s also why diversity on the president’s staff of pandemic advisors is so critical.

In addition to being a physician, Dr. Hobbs is an assistant pastor for his church. As a respected voice, he shares a vital message with his community. He also leads by example. He got vaccinated and experienced no side effects.

“I need to set an example because it is much easier to go to your congregation and encourage those who are reluctant to do so if you yourself have already done it. So it actually was a role-model situation as much as a safety factor for myself,” Dr. Hobbs said.

As a pastor, this is what he tells the congregation: “I got the vaccine, and you need to get the vaccine as well – because it’s going to save your life. It’s going to keep grandmama safe. And that’s who we worry about is grandmama and grandpapa and potentially even parents.”

Inspiration and exhortation

Good community health requires a team effort. Leadership has to drive that team mentality. Men, women, young, old, rich, poor and people of all races have to pull together.

Beating the COVID-19 pandemic will be a team victory. But when this battle is won, we can’t relax and lose sight of the end goal.

Dr. Hobbs tells the story of Kizzmekia Corbett to inspire Black people while also exhorting them to get vaccinated and defeat COVID-19. But his words speak to everyone.

“We have to understand. We finally got a breakthrough. We can’t go back 60, 70, 80 years or more and live in that dark world.”

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