Historical Medical Racism and COVID-19 Vaccinations in the Black Community Focus of “Y’all Getting Vaccinated” Event

by Chamidae Ford

On Monday evening, Feb. 8, Shukri Olow, a candidate to represent the 5th District for the King County Council, organized an event dedicated to providing the Black community with all the information available about COVID-19 vaccines in an accessible and digestible way. 

The event, “Y’all getting vaccinated?: A talk about racism, medicine, COVID-19 vaccines, and the Black community,” featured several lectures by Black doctors, ranging from a discussion on the racist history in medical trials to how each vaccine works. Nearly 600 people gathered for the two-hour event. 

Deaunte Damper, the host of the event, emphasized that the goal was to create a space where the community could talk about the vaccine. He expressed how essential talking about the vaccine and hearing each other’s thoughts, fears, and emotions around the issue was. 

“Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation,” said Damper.

Currently, in the United States, Black people only make up 5.4% of those vaccinated, despite being 13.4% of the United States population, 16% of healthcare workers, and 14% of residents in elderly care facilities. In Washington State, a new report from the Department of Health shows that 2.7% of people who are fully vaccinated are Black, although Black people make up 3.9% of the state’s population.These large gaps stem in part from a general distrust of the vaccine rooted in obvious and deeply traumatic racism that happens in the medical field. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has begun, Black patients with COVID-19 are 2.8 times as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.

Dr. Sandra Walker, a psychologist, delved into clinical trials that had racist roots, focusing heavily on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. The study was conducted between 1932 and 1972 on Black men who were given syphilis without their consent and did not know about their disease. They were recruited under the pretense of free healthcare. 

Some of these men ended up transferring syphilis to their wives unknowingly. Some of them had children during the study that were born with syphilis. Even after treatment was discovered for the disease, the men were not treated, and the study continued. Only after word got out about the study did it end. 

“All of those things have led people who are in vulnerable populations to think twice about participating in human experimentation and about certain aspects of healthcare,” Walker said. “I think the fact that the COVID vaccine has been developed rapidly has scared people. And I think that we have to weigh the advances in science, the gravity of the hour, our own personal vulnerabilities, how bad it might be to get the vaccine with how it would be to get COVID.”

The event was created to provide the Black community with as much information as possible about the vaccines. Therefore, regardless if they do or don’t get the vaccine, they can still make an informed decision. 

Dr. Tracy Hilliard, the director of Michigan Public Health Institute, started her lecture on COVID-19 statistics with a reminder of that purpose.

“We are not here to advise you one way or another about the vaccine, but want you all to feel that you can make informed decisions,” Hilliard said.

Dr. Hilliard taught the audience how to stay on top of local and national numbers for COVID-19. She provided websites that displayed the current statistics for the number of people with COVID-19, the number of deaths, the number of people with vaccinations. and much more.

She also emphasized that the COVID-19 vaccine, whether people choose to get it or not, is Black History. The Moderna vaccine was invented by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman. 

“I want to make sure that people know that there is a Black woman leading the way with regard to [the Moderna] vaccine,” Hilliard said. 

Then the event transitioned to Dr. John Vassall, who took some time to explain what was in each vaccine that was being offered: how they worked, why they worked, and the differences between them. He also debunked some myths and explained how these vaccines compared to others of the past. 

“They made an effort to test across ethnic and racial populations, which is also relatively new; most of the [past] vaccines have been tested in whites up until now,” Vassall said. He added that since the vaccines are tested in a controlled group, their effectiveness may change when they are in a larger population. 

“In the test population, it was 95% effective. However, to know how effective it will be to the larger population, we will have to give it to a larger number of people — which we have done. Forty-two million shots, and it has been quite effective so far,” Vassall said.

After that, Dr. Shawn Smith gave the statistics on COVID-19 in children. She explained that although children are significantly less susceptible to COVID-19 than older people, there are still children who die because of the disease. There are currently trials taking place to create a vaccine specifically for children, though, she said. She compared them to each other, explaining the different dosage sizes and how the test groups vary. 

Smith explained that the quickest way to control the pandemic would be mass vaccination. Citing past vaccines as evidence for their success. 

“In pediatrics, there are so many diseases, and Dr. Vassall mentioned smallpox, but like measles and chickenpox, that we don’t even see anymore because we have vaccinations for it,” Smith said. 

Finally, Dr. Farah Bille Mohamad, who works for Public Health — Seattle & King Countyand is part of the leadership team of the Somali Health Board, talked about COVID-19 among immigrants and refugees. He explained how overcrowding and multigenerational households play a role in high COVID-19 rates. And, he said, most immigrants work jobs that they are unable to do from home. 

He also discussed  a University of Washington study that is focusing on the COVID-19 testing barriers within Seattle’s Somali community.

“They don’t feel comfortable going to testing sites because there are no people who speak their language,” Bille Mohamad said. He added that  the lack of diversity among healthcare workers providing the test has also caused hesitation in the Somali community. 

“There should be people who look like us,” he  said.   

If you’d like to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and the ways they impact different aspects of the Black community, you can watch the full event here.

Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

Featured image by Susan Fried.

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