Powerful Visual Plays Role in Doctor’s Decision to Be Among Early Vaccinations

by Sally James

Courtney Gilliam, M.D., was the first person at Seattle Children’s Hospital to get a COVID-19 vaccine last week. Gilliam is Black and has worked as a pediatrician at Children’s for about five years, doing her residency and a fellowship and working part of her time in a clinic in Kent. For now, she sees children who are hospitalized at the main building in North Seattle.

She is well aware of the reasons that Black communities and other People of Color have for distrust and suspicion of medical institutions. In an interview with the Emerald, Gilliam talked about her decision to be part of the media coverage around the beginning of vaccinations.

“With the arrival of the vaccine, I feel cautiously optimistic and hopeful that we are entering a different phase of the pandemic. But I understand the weight of this, specifically in the Black community,” she said.

Gilliam considered the symbol she would become in receiving her vaccine in front of television cameras and, on balance, decided it was something she wanted to do. 

“The medical system has lost a lot of trust with Black and Brown communities,” she said. “My presence getting a vaccine was a powerful visual.”

National polls and reporting show that Black and other People of Color said they were less likely to get any of the multiple COVID-19 vaccines than white communities.  A CNN story from Dec. 18 reported that about one-third of Black people polled said they would not choose to get the vaccine. The poll in the story was done by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. 

While Black and Brown communities may be less likely to take vaccines, they are more likely to die of COVID-19, as reported in the Emerald. 

Two vaccines, one from Pfizer-BioNTech and one from Moderna, have both been approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. Both vaccines are expected to be available in Washington, but at first, only health care workers and the staff and residents in nursing homes are in line to get these vaccines. The state of Washington has a plan for how the limited amount of vaccine will be distributed. Wider distribution will add essential workers and people over age 75. 

UW Medicine broadcast a livestream of the first 13 staff members receiving the vaccine. Those staff included people from Harborview Medical Center. A representative for Neighborcare Health, a nonprofit that provides health care to vulnerable populations, said that the organization is partnering with Healthpoint to begin some vaccinations later this month. The Emerald  has reached out to local nursing homes to ask if they are beginning vaccinations but have not heard back. 

Courtney Gilliam receives a vaccination Dec.15 at Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Children’s Hospital)

Besides her interest in caring for children, Gilliam also hopes to change the way we educate doctors in order to make People of Color more welcome during the experience.

She grew up in New York City and moved to Seattle after medical school. While she loves seeing patients, she has spent time and done research on medical education itself and hopes to work as a leader who redesigns medical education.

After the shot, she felt a bit of comfort, but pointed out that there’s no evidence that the vaccine changes the transmissibility of the virus. People who are vaccinated still have to wear masks and personal protective equipment, just as before vaccination.

“We are so early in the vaccination. … It has not made any drastic change for me. I’m still masking. I’m still staying socially distanced,” she said. 

In her job at Children’s, Gilliam has cared for one child with MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a complication of COVID-19. While most children don’t get seriously ill from COVID-19, some get very sick. Her patient recovered.

Gilliam will require a second dose of her vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses several weeks apart to be fully effective.

Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.  

Featured image courtesy of Seattle Children’s Hospital.