Teaming Up to Spread the Word about Vaccination

Drs. Haywood and Williams fist bumping after receiving COVID-19 vaccines

In the first two weeks since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and later the Moderna vaccine, received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, health care workers and others have begun receiving vaccinations for COVID-19 in a campaign to promote their safety and importance. According to a recent Associated Press- NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, however, just 47% of all Americans plan to get vaccinated when they are eligible, with the remainder evenly split between those who don’t plan to get vaccinated and those who are unsure. Among Black survey participants, the numbers fall to just 24% who plan to get vaccinated, 40% who do not plan to be vaccinated, and 37% who are unsure.

To address these concerns, George Washington University (GW) Anti-Racism Coalition Co-Chairs Karen Williams, MD, a retired associate professor of anesthesiology, and Yolanda Haywood, MD, RESD ’87, BS ’81, interim senior associate dean for diversity and faculty affairs, associate dean for student affairs, and associate professor of emergency medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, chose to get vaccinated together to demonstrate their confidence in vaccine safety and their commitment to spreading the word about the importance of vaccination on community health.

Q: Why did you decide to get your COVID-19 vaccine together?

Haywood: We decided to do this together as an encouragement to one another that we were making the right choice in being vaccinated. We understand that people may have doubts and fears despite the clear message from the science community that the vaccine is safe. There is comfort in taking this step along with someone you know and trust. We thought that others might want to partner with a colleague or friend to support one another and demonstrate their courage to step forward and take the vaccine.

Williams: The coalescence of the devastation of COVID with continued racial injustice presents an unprecedented time for Americans and particularly for citizens of color. In an effort to demonstrate not only solidarity, but also our trust in the research, development, and implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine, we wanted to assure the black and brown communities of the safety and importance of obtaining this particular vaccine to save lives.

Q: Why is it so important for the health care community to talk about their experiences with this vaccine?

Haywood: We are not only health care providers, but we are also recipients of care ourselves! We hope our message says that together we can do this; end the pandemic, save lives, give hope to a world that seems to be in chaos.

Williams: Members of the health care community are trusted role models. By demonstrating knowledge gained about the COVID-19 pandemic and its vaccine, and by being willing participants in this important endeavor. We can be important influences in our communities. We would not put our own lives on the line by becoming vaccinated with a disreputable product.

Q: Why is it so important for all people from all backgrounds, particularly those from communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, to consider getting this vaccine?

Williams: Black people are 2.8 times as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. Hispanic people are 3.8 times as likely to be hospitalized as white people, with a heavier burden of case percentages. COVID-19 infection, impact, and potential death is synergized by pre-existing social determinants of racial inequality such as housing, food insecurity, access to health care, and education among others. Therefore, it’s critical that communities of color immunize themselves.

Haywood: It’s so important that everyone consider the vaccine. Our efforts to eradicate COVID-19 are dependent on the vaccination of as many people as possible. That’s how we impart immunity to ourselves and our communities. It goes beyond just ourselves, taking the vaccine is an act of humanity, it says, “I care about you!”

Q: Why are some people reluctant to get the vaccine?

Williams: While communities of color are not monolithic, individuals may be reluctant due to historical interactions with health care and government, such as the Tuskegee Study or Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell lines. Misinformation has led people from all communities to have a host of concerns. Some of the more common questions include how does one know they’re really getting the vaccine as advertised and not a placebo. Others concerned the perception of “rushed to development” of the vaccine (mRNA has been an available technology for decades). There also is the fear of getting COVID-19 from the vaccine (neither the Pfizer nor Moderna vaccines carry any COVID-19 virus, live or dead), fear of altering one’s DNA (mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid and can most easily be described as instructions for how to make a protein or even just a piece of a protein; it can’t alter or modify a person’s genetic makeup), and fear about the vaccine causing infertility or other serious illnesses (between Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines have been tested in more than 70,000 volunteers). And, myths about vaccines causing Autism have been around for a while, and they’re also false.

Haywood: I understand that there is reluctance. The medical community has not always been transparent and trustworthy especially when it comes to marginalized communities so the distrust is understandable. Despite that, it is clear that at this point in time we ALL need each other. We cannot be successful in eradicating COVID-19 unless we come together as a human race and participate in the eradication. Perhaps this is a time of recognition that we have the opportunity to do this together, all of us, united together against this plague. I don’t see another option.

Q: What message do you want to convey to your colleagues, friends, and family about the vaccine?

Williams: The vaccines have been through rigorous testing and vaccine development protocols by reputable review agencies and companies. It has included thousands of volunteers and many companies and scientists who pledge their lives and reputations to stringent scientific protocols and oversight committees. The potential temporary side effects of the vaccine far outweigh the devastating short- and long-term impact of getting COVID-19. Let’s get back to some semblance of a normal life. Roll up those sleeves! Get vaccinated!

Visit GW’s COVID-19 Vaccination website to learn more information about the vaccination and learn about COVID-19 vaccine facts vs. myths.

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