I was 16 years old when I came to the United States from Nigeria. While it was over 19 years ago, my memories and experiences helped to shape me into the public health advocate and physician I am today.
I understand many people’s skepticism based on the long history of racism in medicine. I still cringe when I recall the rawness of my emotions upon learning of the maliciousness of the Tuskegee experiments, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, and countless other examples of gross injustice wrought on people of color by our medical establishment.
Here in the United States, I have seen unconscious bias play out in clinics and hospitals, so I have empathy for my patients who genuinely fear primary care medicine. And, still, I believe in and am looking forward to receiving the vaccine, and want to help my patients feel like they should, too. As a primary care physician, I practice in Camden, and at a free medical clinic in Cherry Hill on the weekends. I tell my patients that as soon as it is my turn for the COVID-19 vaccine, I will roll up my sleeves, exhale, and smile with relief.
Over 16 million Americans have had COVID-19. More than 300,0000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Another 45,000 have been hospitalized while enduring devastating, debilitating conditions and chronic symptoms after falling ill from the virus. As frontline workers, we have seen firsthand the death and long-term consequences that COVID-19 wreaks on the human body. As a person of color, seeing how this virus ravaged minority patients is devastating — and I know this vaccine will be the only way to save lives.
This month, millions of health-care workers around the United States and the world will receive the vaccine. I can say with certainty, if the world is willing to risk the lives of all the doctors and nurses taking care of patients, that is good evidence that we believe the vaccine is safe.
Even so, I have some patients who will not get the vaccine despite it being available to them in the New Year. This “vaccine hesitancy” will be primary care doctors’ biggest challenge.
I understand this hesitancy.
Though I would love to proclaim that a lot has changed over the years, the piercing reality of racial disparities in survivability of different diseases underscores the opposite. COVID-19 disproportionately affects the Black community. However, we now have a vaccine with impressive efficacy data that could prevent this disease. So, here is my message to my community:
While our skepticism and distrust of the establishment is understandable, the COVID-19 vaccine is different. We are not being experimented on, and we are neither the first nor the only ones to receive it. Of the 40,000 people in the Pfizer vaccine trial, there were 16,775 people of color (of whom 3,492 were Black) in the study already done. The 95% efficacy of the vaccine was seen in us, too. More importantly, the vaccine was just as safe for those 16,775 people of color as it was for white study participants.
This vaccine is NOT injecting the live COVID-19 virus into us. It does NOT contain any other viruses. It does NOT contain any virus’ DNA. It does NOT have preservatives in it like other vaccines. It does NOT contain blood products, fetal material, microchips, or antibiotics.
It does contain four types of ingredients: The mRNA (the instructions that tell our immune system how to recognize and fight off COVID-19 if we are exposed to it); fat molecules that help carry the mRNA into the body; tiny salt molecules to keep the vaccine at the same sodium concentration as the body; and tiny sugar molecules to prevent the fat molecules from sticking together. That is it!
The COVID-19 vaccine was produced at an unprecedented pace because we are facing a pandemic with deadly and destructive effects unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes. Admittedly, like you, I wish similar attention and resources had been given to some of the other previous infections. But let us fight this together by getting vaccinated when it becomes available to us.
Jubril Oyeyemi is founder and executive director of Cherry Hill Free Clinic, a non-profit medical clinic that provides primary care at no cost to the uninsured. He is also the medical director of Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and the Community Health Institute at Virtua Health.