SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Community Coalition on Race and the Village of South Orange partnered to host a panel of Black healthcare professionals to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine and rollout in Black communities.

Moderated by Khalil Gibran Muhammad the panelists included Dr. Omar Bey, Dr. Camara Jones and Sean Hudson. Citing a Pew Research study that found that 57 percent of Black and 37 percent of Hispanic people would refuse the vaccine; the goal of the panel was to reduce that percentage.

Muhammad, a professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard, began the discussion by providing historical context for the mistrust many Black Americans feel towards the healthcare system. He cited multiple examples throughout medical and American history where black people have been unfairly treated or lied to about their healthcare. Notable instances included J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology who used enslaved women as his test subjects; the Tuskegee syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks, who had a tumor sample taken from her without consent and used for research.

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Jones, who has written previously on the topic of medical racism, pointed to how institutional factors become barriers to healthcare for black people. She highlighted how the vaccine rollout left many vulnerable people behind.

The panelists addressed some of the ways that distrust of medical professionals can hurt members of the black community. Hudson, the Vice President of Digital and Global Head of Learning and Development at Pfizer, spoke about the ways that Pfizer has been trying to reach out to black people.

“Taking advantage of who we know and understand to be influencers in the community physicians of color, healthcare providers of color,” said Hudson. “People of the clergy, people working in social civic organizations so that we can really help people to understand the information available to them so that they can make good choices.”

Dr. Bey and Dr. Jones both highlighted how much safer it is to get the vaccine than it is to become infected with COVID-19. 

“It will protect you from dying,” said Dr. Bey. “There are a lot of other aspects and a lot of other questions that we may not be able to answer because it’s just too new the virus is too new and the vaccine is too new.”

Dr. Bey specifically talked about trying to combat all the misinformation that circulates on social media regarding the vaccine and the virus. Answering a question about the long term effects of the vaccines, all three panelists agreed that there is no way to know except to wait. 

Dr. Jones explained that she is not particularly concerned with the long term effects of the three vaccines. She said the mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is degraded by the body ‘almost immediately’ and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a modified adenovirus vaccine which has been used for many other vaccines that have not been shown to have side effects.

“There haven’t been really worrisome safety signals from either the two mRNA vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer, or we wouldn’t expect them from the Johnson & Johnson,” said Dr. Jones

During the Q&A at the end of the program, Dr. Jones was asked as a teacher and a medical professional about the school reopening issue that is happening in SOMA and around the country. 

“If we upgrade the schools in terms of the systems, if we make sure everybody’s masked, if we vaccinate all of the teachers and the staff and the janitorial — everybody — that’s almost good enough,” said Dr. Jones.

“Our kids do need to be in school,” she continued. “But I think we shouldn’t think, 'well the kids don’t seem to get so sick so that’s alright,' because the kids are vectors too.”

Trustee Summer Jones ended the program with information about how SOMA residents can learn more about the vaccine and find out eligibility.

Maplewood Township is also asking for participants in vaccination focus groups from Black and Latino SOMA residents. Those who are interested can email with the subject like “Focus Group” by March 1.


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