“What do you mean?” Dunlap remembers his wife saying. “Your family needs you. Let somebody else take it.”
But Dunlap had already made up his mind to get the coronavirus vaccine. He thought about the number of people who have died of covid-19, including one of the cleaning workers he supervised at the hospital.
He recognized the importance of getting vaccinated, and wanted to be a leader for not only his staff of 70 people — who clean and disinfect every part of the hospital, including the covid-19 rooms — but also his community.
Convincing Black Americans scarred by generations of health-care discrimination to trust the vaccine is a crucial part of ending the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black Americans, Latinos and front-line workers.
And so on Tuesday, despite his family’s worries, Dunlap became one of the first seven employees at Howard hospital to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, sitting straight up in his chair as white-coated, masked and face-shielded Frank Evans, a licensed practical nurse at the hospital, inserted the needle into his right arm.
Howard is one of six sites that received part of the District’s initial shipment of 6,825 doses of the vaccine. They arrived Monday morning, as the total number of coronavirus cases reported in the greater Washington region climbed above 540,000, and the death toll in the District, Maryland and Virginia exceeded 10,200.
Officials at the historically Black institution hope that publicizing the vaccination process will encourage other people to get vaccinated, especially Black Americans, who are nearly three times as likely to die of covid-19 because of health-care disparities and increased exposure at jobs deemed essential.
Many have told researchers and community leaders they do not plan to take the vaccine because of a history of medical mistreatment and because of the politicization of the vaccine development process.
“We will take the vaccine not to jump in line, but to show people and to help people understand this is a safe weapon against the scourge of covid that has just been taking lives, day after day,” Anita Jenkins, the chief executive of the hospital, said before getting her shot.
Howard University College of Medicine, founded three years after the end of the Civil War to train doctors to care for newly freed Black people in the nation’s capital, is working alongside the nation’s three other Black medical colleges to build community confidence in the vaccine.
Howard University set up coronavirus testing sites early on in the pandemic in Ward 7 and Ward 8, which have the city’s largest populations of Black Americans. And Howard’s medical school and hospital will soon be running the clinical trial of a vaccine that has yet to reach the market, spokeswoman Alonda Thomas said.
“We have a legacy of leadership in science and developing insights into new science approaches to treating health, and in applying science to the benefit of people of color,” said Reed Tuckson, a doctor and Howard University trustee who is the founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.
Tuesday’s vaccinations, he added, were “a further example of this history.”
Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, the hospital’s chief medical officer, who got vaccinated just before Dunlap, said: “We’ve all heard the statistics about what happens in the African American community and communities of color. And so it’s important for those who are in leadership roles to demonstrate our willingness to take the vaccine.”
Dunlap was eager to do so. He said he decided to get the vaccine weeks ago, after Jenkins announced she was going to be vaccinated.
“The early stage [of the pandemic] was really rough for me, so that’s why I felt that I had to be at the forefront to lead,” Dunlap said.
The housekeeper who died of covid-19 did not contract the virus at the hospital, Dunlap said. In all, 10 of his staff members have tested positive, Dunlap said. Some workers quit, some refused to clean rooms inhabited by virus patients. His hours, and those of his remaining staff, grew longer.
The virus disrupted his personal life as well; among other things, he was unable to travel to Florida for the funeral of a pastor who was one of his childhood mentors and had died of cancer.
“I feel this day is historic because this is the beginning stages of making covid-19 decline,” Dunlap said after being vaccinated. “And somebody has to be the guinea pig. Somebody has to be the front line to volunteer and everything to see if the vaccine works.”
His wife was not easily convinced, however. Tuesday morning, before Dunlap headed to work, she stopped him and asked if they could pray.
“And so she prayed with me. That kind of gave me more ease, that God got it,” Dunlap said.
After the shots were given, and the crowd cleared out of the hospital’s Freedmen’s Hall, Dunlap began preparing the area for his staff to come in and do the essential work they’ve been doing every day during this pandemic: thoroughly disinfecting the area to curb the spread of the deadly disease.