Raymond Pla, an anesthesiologist at the Medical Faculty Associates, was shopping at an Anacostia bookstore specializing in Black culture last month when he received a call from GW’s Office of Employee Health informing him that he was selected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
He said in that moment, he thought about how his nationally televised vaccination could inspire trust in the vaccine among the Black community, which he is a part of.
“We, as a medical community have to go out in the medical community, particularly not just those of us who are African American or Latinx, but all of us have to go out,” Pla said. “This is a moral imperative. We have to go out into the community and answer the questions that people have in a clear and respectful, nonjudgmental way.”
Pla, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, was among the first members of the GW community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, three of whom said in interviews that they hoped to set an example of their confidence in the vaccine.
He said the health care community has a responsibility to hear out concerns from members of marginalized communities about the vaccine and encourage members of those communities to receive the vaccine.
November research from the Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of Black Americans said they would receive a vaccine if one were available to them, compared to 61 percent of White Americans. Black and Brown communities have faced disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates, which he said is a reality that will not change without acceptance of the vaccine.
“There is long-standing mistrust in Black and Brown communities with respect to vaccines and with respect to health care more broadly,” he said. “We have to recognize that those concerns, those misgivings and trepidations are real and have a longstanding historical root. Some of the root causes extend to practice and health care disparities that exist in the here and now.”
Despite being vaccinated, Pla said his day-to-day COVID-19 prevention practices remain the same. He said “nothing changes” for him until public health authorities, who base their decisions in science and epidemiology, declare that it is safe to hold and attend large gatherings.
“Influenza is also a dangerous virus, particularly in communities of color where you tend to see more covert disease and more chronic underlying health conditions,” he said. “It is just yet another reason to continue with the mask wearing, frequent hand washing and keeping the groups very, very small.”
Yolanda Haywood, the medical school’s senior associate dean for diversity and faculty affairs and an associate professor of emergency medicine, received the vaccine publicly with Karen Williams, a retired anesthesiology professor, to encourage those who are anxious about getting the vaccine.
“Support is a powerful motive for getting through anything that might be scary or anxiety-provoking,” Haywood said in an email. “We just hope that others might adopt this method of coping. It’s a buddy system – ‘I got your back, you got my back! We can do this together.’”
She said the medical school is planning to hold town halls and community briefings on the vaccine to educate people about why they should feel comfortable receiving it. The school is also debuting an ambassadors program to encourage “peer-to-peer dialogue” about the vaccine.
“When the vaccine becomes available to the general public, we hope this will foster provider-to-patient dialogue, as well,” Haywood said.
Haywood declined to say how the medical community can communicate the importance of receiving the vaccine to disproportionately underserved communities.
A research team from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences conducted an arm of the Moderna, Inc. vaccine trial this past semester, exceeding their goals for including Black and Latino participants.
Sean Chester, an emergency medicine physician for the Medical Faculty Associates and a clinical instructor of emergency medicine at the medical school, said he immediately agreed to get vaccinated in mid-December when a nurse informed him that he had been selected. He said after observing what independent reviewers of the Food and Drug Administration determined about the vaccine and listening to information about the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he didn’t have any hesitations.
Several widespread myths about the vaccine include that it was developed too rapidly to be safe and effective and that individuals who have already been infected with COVID-19 don’t need to receive the vaccine.
“After the vaccine got the approval and it was recommended by all the independent experts and people that reviewed it, I had a chance to look at the data myself,” Chester said. “The New England Journal [of Medicine] put out the article essentially that went over the trial data, so I was very reassured after seeing those things.”
Chester said he has shared his experience receiving the vaccine on Facebook and Instagram to address misinformation.
“Especially now, as we have been seeing on social media, the gut reaction is to have the complete negative reaction and that just shuts down the conversation and turns into personal attacks rather than education and understanding,” Chester said.
He said being vaccinated is not a “free pass” to ignore CDC guidelines, and medical community members should set an example to the public for how to behave.
“As members of a privileged community where we have had access to this vaccine, we didn’t think that we would be put in the spotlight, but we are,” Chester said. “We have to walk the walk and not just say you should follow these things. I think that while we should do this, I don’t think that anyone is perfect, and I don’t think that we should publicly shame people for having missteps.”
Katherine Liwanag, a fourth-semester nursing student, said she received the first dosage of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 28 through Inova Loudoun, the Virginia hospital where she works. The vaccination process was similar to receiving a flu shot, and she experienced mild symptoms, like soreness in her arm and some fatigue for a few days, she said.
Liwanag said she worries that people will use getting vaccinated as an excuse for loosening COVID-19 restrictions. Current COVID-19 guidelines should still be followed despite the rolling out of the vaccine, and vaccinations should serve “on top of what we are already doing,” she said.
“Soreness lasted the day of and the next day,” she said. “Then I was pretty tired the next day, the second day after the first dose. But that’s about it.”