Like many black and rural Americans, Denese Rankin, a 55-year-old accountant and receptionist in Castleberry, Ala., Did not want the Covid-19 vaccine.
Ms. Rankin was concerned about side effects – she had seen stories on social media of people who, for example, developed Bell’s palsy after being vaccinated. She thought the vaccines came too quickly to be safe. And she feared that the vaccinations might prove to be another example in the government’s long history of medical experimentation on blacks.
Then, one weekend, her niece, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University in Atlanta, came to town. Dr. Zanthia Wiley said one of her goals on the trip was to speak to friends and family back home in Alabama and let them learn the truth about the vaccines from someone they knew, from someone who is black.
Across the country, black and Hispanic doctors like Dr. Wiley to Americans in minority communities who are suspicious of Covid-19 vaccines and often distrust the officials who watch them on TV that they should be vaccinated. Many oppose public announcements, say doctors and the federal government.
Although vaccine adoption is growing, Black and Hispanic Americans – among the groups hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic – are still the most reluctant to roll up their sleeves. Even health care workers in some hospitals refused to be shot.
But the assurances from black and Hispanic doctors can make a huge difference, experts say. “I don’t want us to benefit the least,” said Dr. Wiley. “We should come first to get it.”
Many doctors like her now not only urge friends and relatives to get the vaccine, but also post messages on social media and make group video calls to ask people to share their concerns and offer reliable information.
“I think it makes a big difference,” said Dr. Valeria Daniela Lucio Cantos, Infectious Disease Specialist at Emory. She has hosted online town halls and webinars on vaccination, including one with black and Hispanic staff from the university’s cleaning staff.
She believes that they are listening, not only because she is Spanish and speaks Spanish, she said, but also because she is an immigrant – her family is still in Ecuador. “Culturally, they have someone to relate to,” said Dr. Cantos.
Many of the vaccine-reluctant people are pivotal points for health in their own families. Ms. Rankin, for example, takes care of Dr. Wiley’s blind grandmother and her grandfather, who cannot walk. Mrs. Rankin looks at Dr. Wiley’s mother, whose health is fragile. And she is a single mother of three girls, including a 14-year-old who still lives at home.
“If my aunt got infected, my family would be in very difficult shape,” said Dr. Wiley.
Dr. Wiley met with Ms. Rankin, her daughter, and her mother in the living room of a brick ranch house on a quiet street – socially distant and in masks. Dr. Wiley answered questions and explained the science behind the vaccine.
No, she said, the vaccine is not made from live coronaviruses that could infect people. No, just because someone was vaccinated and got sick doesn’t mean the vaccine made them sick.
And yes, the vaccine has been tested on tens of thousands of people and the data has been carefully scrutinized by scientists, with nothing to be gained and all to be lost by getting it ahead of schedule.
Answers to your vaccine questions
With a coronavirus vaccine spreading out of the US, here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.
- When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination? Life will only get back to normal once society as a whole receives adequate protection against the coronavirus. Once countries have approved a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible that people spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild or no symptoms. Scientists don’t yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.
- Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination? Yeah, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This seems to be sufficient protection to protect the vaccinated person from disease. What is not clear, however, is whether it is possible for the virus to bloom in the nose – and sneeze or exhale to infect others – even if antibodies have been mobilized elsewhere in the body to prevent that vaccinated person gets sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether people who were vaccinated are protected from disease – not to find out whether they can still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccines and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to hope that people who are vaccinated will not spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone – including those who have been vaccinated – must imagine themselves as possible silent shakers and continue to wear a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt What are the side effects? The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection in your arm feels no different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects seems to be higher than with the flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. The side effects, which can be similar to symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and are more likely to occur after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest that some people may need to take a day off because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, around half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headache, chills, and muscle pain. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is having a potent response to the vaccine that provides lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any given moment, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can hold for a few days at most before it is destroyed.
Dr. Wiley told them she was looking forward to being vaccinated herself.
Dr. Virginia Banks, an infectious disease specialist in Youngstown, Ohio who is Black, understands the community’s longstanding distrust of the medical facility.
But she’s seen too many people – and not all of those who are old – suffering and dying from the pandemic, she said. And Dr. Banks worries about her own risk while caring for patients. “I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette,” she said.
So she recites stories for those who hesitate to get the vaccine, like one about a patient she recently treated who gasps. He asked her, “Will I get out alive?” She told him she didn’t know.
“We have to tell these stories to black Americans,” she said. “And it has to come from someone who looks like her.”
“My friends and family say, ‘Even if the risk is one in a million, I won’t take it,” she added. “I say,’ I understand your suspicions, but that goes beyond Tuskegee. This is beyond from “The immortal life of Henrietta is missing”. We are now in a pandemic. We have to trust science. ‘”
Dr. Banks emphasizes the impact of individual decisions: “If you don’t take this vaccine and it’s safe, we’ll be wearing masks for some time. If you want your life back, if you want to return to normal, you have to rely on trustworthy messengers like me. “
Dr. Leo Seoane, a Spanish intensive care doctor at Ochsner Health in New Orleans, has already been vaccinated. When he started talking to friends, family, and others in the community, virtually everyone said they would not get the shot.
They feared the vaccine was being developed too quickly, that it wasn’t sure, that it might not be effective, or that it was infecting them with the coronavirus. Now, after gentle persuasion, “they have all changed their minds”.
But few believe that it takes a conversation or two with a trusted doctor to turn vaccine skeptics into believers.
“When they first discussed the possibility of a vaccine in April, I said, ‘No way,'” said Phelemon Reins, a 56-year-old federal government official. He was suspicious of the pace of vaccine development and knew too well the history of the medical system’s mistreatment of blacks.
“The Trump administration has done nothing to inspire anyone to have confidence in anything that comes out,” he added. “I refuse everything you say.”
But Dr. Banks, a friend, made him reconsider his reluctance. “In the end, it will be people like her that I depend on,” said Reins. “I trust her.”
“How do you convince the African American community?” he said. “You may have to have people who look like you.”