“We encourage them, we try to . . . explain to them that it’s safe,” Hugh E. Mighty, Howard’s medical school dean, said.
Howard and other historically Black colleges and universities have emerged as partners in the country’s coronavirus rollout, serving not only as clinics for vaccines but also working to engender trust in the inoculations.
“If you look at the proportion of people of color who have died from the virus, it’s been disproportionate,” Mighty said. “As an HBCU who is connected to the community and has some trust in that community, we certainly try to make sure that we’re paying attention.”
A similar effort is underway at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. In the past month, the school has vaccinated about 950 people in surrounding Davidson County. The school has also conducted clinical trials and administered coronavirus tests during the pandemic.
“It was important for us to do our part in participating in the clinical trials . . . so that when we got to the point of encouraging individuals of color to get the vaccine, we would have been there from the inception,” said Cherae Farmer-Dixon, dean of the School of Dentistry at Meharry, who heads the university’s vaccine clinic.
Farmer-Dixon said that while distrust of the vaccine remains a constant, there has been an outpouring of interest from Black people who want to learn more about the shot and when they can get one. Now, the biggest hurdles are limited supply and a vaccination schedule that Farmer-Dixon worries is a mismatch for the community.
Nashville is inoculating residents ages 75 and older, but some of the greatest need is among younger Black and Latino people with preexisting conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Farmer-Dixon said.
“You have to meet people where they are,” Farmer-Dixon said. “Have mobile vaccine sites, have pop-up vaccine sites in African American and Hispanic communities. The other part of that is partnering with people in those communities that people trust.”
Meharry is working with the city and state on those issues. Being a partner of the county health department in vaccine distribution means Meharry can directly voice concerns about disparities in distribution of the vaccine, Farmer-Dixon said. That’s an invaluable position, she said, to get the community’s needs met and further gain their trust.
The nation’s four Black medical schools — Howard, Meharry, the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California — are working together toward that end.
“There is power in numbers,” Farmer-Dixon said. “Talking to and educating not only our immediate community but working with the three other Black medical schools so that we are all having the same conversations within our communities is important.”
The push among HBCUs to support the vaccination effort has not been without challenges. Last fall, the presidents of Dillard and Xavier universities — two historically Black schools in Louisiana — encouraged their campuses to enroll in clinical vaccine trials in which they had participated. The backlash was swift.
“Sorry, not using my child as a guinea pig,” one woman commented on Xavier’s Facebook page. Skeptics also referenced Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee syphilis study — two medical cases that deepened distrust of health providers within the Black community. “While I understand the necessity of a diverse pool of candidates to test the vaccine, why start with HBCUs?” another person wrote.
“I get the fear, but . . . we’re dying disproportionately,” Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard, said in an interview last fall. “We’re disproportionately hospitalized. We’ve disproportionately lost our jobs. We’re disproportionately impacted by this virus, so why wouldn’t you do something that would protect you so you can go earn a living again?”
This week, Kimbrough said some of the skepticism has died down as more prominent Black leaders have stepped up to build community confidence in the vaccine. The university’s chief medical officer, for example, has shared information during the pandemic as an on-air contributor for a television station in New Orleans.
“We’ve got to have more people like that who can speak to us where we are,” Kimbrough, who is Black, said. “We need more trusted people who look like us who are doctors. We need way more people doing public health, the education part.”
Presidents, including Wayne A.I. Frederick at Howard University and David Wilson from Morgan State University, have publicized their getting their vaccinations in hopes of sending the message to skeptics that the treatment is safe.
Black churches have teamed up with clinics to convince their congregations to take the vaccine. In a special aired on BET, actor, director and studio head Tyler Perry spoke to medical experts and received his shot on-air.
People are warming up to the idea of getting their shots, but there is more work to do.
“Louisiana is just getting into the mass vaccination sites . . . and to have some in some spaces that are familiar with Black folks is good,” Kimbrough said. “We have to keep doing these kinds of things.”
InclusivCare, a health-care provider in Louisiana, is in talks with Dillard to use the campus as a vaccination site. The university has already offered drive-through and walk-up testing for area residents.
Florida A&M University in Tallahassee is also preparing to assist in the state’s vaccine rollout, Larry Robinson, the school’s president, said at a recent event with other HBCU leaders. Encouraged by the success of the school’s testing clinic — which has administered more than 250,000 tests since April — Robinson said the school also has a responsibility to ensure the community is vaccinated.
“We really need to get the word out,” Robinson said, adding that leaders at historically Black institutions have a “much better chance of convincing folks in our communities to get vaccinated.”
“If people don’t come get vaccinated, then we’re going to suffer unduly, and we’ve seen the suffering already, the disparities, the death,” he said.
That anxiety is what pushed Tasya Bracey, a 46-year-old chef from Bowie, Md., to get vaccinated on Howard’s campus Thursday.
“Death is not fun,” Bracey said, adding she has an 8-year-old daughter who needs her.
Bracey, one of 500 people to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Howard this week, said she did not hesitate to get inoculated. She was encouraged by friends who are doctors and vouched for the treatment.
Now that she’s finished with both doses, Bracey said she’s not in a rush to go live her life like she did before the pandemic.
“I’m not going to change,” she said. “I’m still going to have my mask on. I still won’t hug my mom.”
Mumbi Carter, 72, said she will also continue to wear a mask and avoid crowds. She received her final dose of the vaccine Thursday and is hopeful more people in her community will follow suit.
Carter, from Suitland, Md., encouraged people to “listen to the science.”
Carter’s friend, 75-year-old Johnnie Harris, compared the vaccine to wearing a shield.
“It’s a small price to pay to help the community,” Harris said about 15 minutes after getting the shot. “I feel great.”