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Opinion For the sake of Black people’s health, we’re mandating coronavirus vaccines for all our medical students

An activist in Washington on July 17. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Wayne A.I. Frederick is the president of Howard University; Valerie Montgomery Rice is the president of Morehouse School of Medicine; David M. Carlisle is the president of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science; and James E.K. Hildreth is the president of Meharry Medical College.

As leaders of the nation’s only four historically Black medical schools, each of us has arrived at the same conclusion heading into the coming school year: We must do everything in our power to protect the next generation of Black doctors — starting by ensuring they are all vaccinated.

We have a lot of reasons to feel confident in our decision to mandate coronavirus vaccines for our students. As medical experts, we know that the vaccines have been thoroughly tested to ensure their safety and efficacy. No shortcuts were taken in the process of authorizing these vaccines for general use. The technology underpinning the vaccines’ development has been in the works for decades.

With more than 160 million people in America fully vaccinated, the three coronavirus vaccines available in our nation have proved to be safe and effective, both against the initial strain of covid-19 and against the known variants that have emerged.

Last week, more than 50 medical groups issued a statement calling for health-care and long-term-care employers to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for their employees. This included the National Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association — groups long at the heart of organized medicine. Their reasoning was simple, and consistent with our own: Vaccination against the coronavirus is crucial to protecting health-care workers themselves, but also to protecting their colleagues, families and patients.

The stakes for the Black medical students training at our institutions are incredibly high. Cultivating more Black doctors is essential to the effort to eliminate health inequities in the Black community, such as the excess incidence of heart disease, stroke and diabetes — and the higher rates of hospitalization and death due to covid-19.

Black doctors are more likely to work in underserved communities, focus on issues that predominantly affect minority patients and display greater cultural sensitivity when treating patients of color. That last point is particularly vital when it comes to overcoming vaccine hesitancy in minority communities, which stems in part from deeply rooted institutional mistrust.

Black Americans continue to be underrepresented in receiving the vaccines, making up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population but only 9.1 percent of fully vaccinated people. After the many historical and modern-day examples supporting the widely held belief that our nation’s social institutions do not operate on behalf of the Black community’s best interests, it is unsurprising and understandable that large portions of the Black community would hesitate to be vaccinated. In addition, misinformation about the vaccines is rampant, and it can be difficult to discern truth from falsehood.

The most effective way to overcome this vaccine hesitancy, and to reduce health-care inequities more generally, is through diversifying the medical profession.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that greater diversity in the physician workforce contributes to an overall increase in the quality of care for patients. Yet only 5 percent of doctors in America are Black. Last year, there were approximately 1,350 Black medical school graduates, and at least 1 out of 7 of those newly minted doctors graduated from one of our institutions.

We understand the outsize role our schools play in ensuring a diversified medical field. That is why we are leaving nothing to chance and vaccinating our students against this virus.

As the covid-19 pandemic continues to present a significant threat to Black communities, we cannot afford to undermine — in any way — the success of the next generation of Black doctors. We know that this is one of the most critical moments for health care in our nation’s history, and that it is imperative that Black medical students make it through this pandemic with their health intact.

And our students are answering the call. Already, 93 percent of the medical students at Morehouse and 94 percent of the medical students at Howard have received their coronavirus vaccines. They are returning to our campuses ready to learn, ready to lead and ready to help save lives as we continue to fight this pandemic. They are counted among the millions of Black Americans who have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine and are either protected from the virus or on the path to immunity.

We must protect our future — whether that’s our next generation of physicians or our next generation, more generally. We are calling on everyone to take a hard, long look at what they can do to end this pandemic. This may mean getting vaccinated, encouraging family members or friends to do the same, or helping folks to get answers to the questions they may have.

With cases of the delta variant on the rise, we must use all our tools to keep our communities safe. The strongest tool we have is vaccination. It’s time to roll up your sleeve — so we can end this together.

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