How can the medical community overcome its history of racial bias?

How can the medical community overcome its history of racial bias?

The medical community has a long history of racial bias against people of color, specifically Black people. This, along with worse social conditions, has led to massive health disparities between Black Americans and their non-Black counterparts. These health disparities put Black Americans at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

But many Black people remain skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine. In December, Pew Research Center reported that 42% of Black Americans said they would get the vaccine, if it were available. Black Americans are less confident in the COVID-19 vaccine compared to other racial groups, as 83% of Asian American adults and 63% of Hispanic adults say they would take the vaccine.

What is the relationship like between the medical community and Black community? And how can medical professionals heal these wounds?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Lola Fadulu Metro reporting fellow, The Washington Post; @LFadulu
  • Dr. Melissa Clarke CEO, BHE Group; steering committee member, Black Coalition Against COVID; @DrMelissaClarke


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Many African-Americans are skeptical about the coronavirus vaccine, even though the virus has sickened and killed people of color at disproportionately high rates. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 42 percent of black adults said they would take the vaccine, compared to 63 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of Asians. There's a history of racial bias within the medical community, and these viruses have contributed to major health disparities between black Americans and their non-black counterparts.

  • 12:32:36

    KOJO NNAMDIAs the coronavirus vaccine begins to roll out, how can the medical community regain the trust of communities of color? Joining us now is Melissa Clarke, who is a physician, the CEO of the BHE Group and steering committee member of the Black Coalition Against COVID. Dr. Clarke, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:58

    DR. MELISSA CLARKEA pleasure to be with you today, Kojo.

  • 12:33:01

    NNAMDICan you briefly explain what the BHE Group is?

  • 12:33:05

    CLARKEYes. BHE stands for the Be Health Empowered Group, and we help to engage and empower individuals in their healthcare and help them be their own best health advocates.

  • 12:33:19

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Lola Fadulu, who is the Metro reporting fellow at the Washington Post. Lola Fadulu, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:28

    LOLA FADULUHi. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:33:29

    NNAMDILola, I'll start with you. Within the black community, what concerns have you been hearing about the COVID vaccine?

  • 12:33:36

    FADULUI've heard from a lot of people that they are concerned with how the vaccine was created. For a lot of people, the process appeared to be quick, and it looked as if the Trump Administration were interfering with the process and politicizing the issue. So, people are hesitant for that reason. There are also people who, as you mentioned, mistrust the medical establishment because of examples in history of black people being experimented on. But also because of experiences people are having right now with their medical providers. So, people are hesitant, and a lot of people want to wait and see how the first phases of distribution go before committing to get the vaccine.

  • 12:34:34

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke, what have you been hearing in terms of concerns about this vaccine?

  • 12:34:40

    CLARKEI've been hearing, actually, the exact same things that your other guest just said. In addition, I would add that there's also a very active and longstanding social media campaign that has been previously against the flu vaccine and other vaccines. It has been ramped up and revised to put out myths and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. It started in -- a lot of the information actually comes out of the same political box, out of Russia, the Soviet Union, but also gets picked up and disseminated.

  • 12:35:24

    CLARKEA lot of research has been done about that at the University of Maryland, and it's being targeted to certain communities, including the African-American communities. So, that magnifies all the -- especially the mistrust aspect, historical mistrust and current mistrust that African-Americans have when it comes to the medical establishment and medical research and medical treatment.

  • 12:35:48

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke, who are you hearing from the most? Does any particular gender, age, cohort or other group within the African-American community seem to have more concerns than others?

  • 12:36:00

    CLARKEIt is across the board, Kojo. It's everyone, men, women, young people, older people. And I think -- and it's regardless of socioeconomic status, because, honestly, because of the milieu of racism that we exist in in this country, as black people, we are all touched by it, regardless of all those various ways that we are segmented and sub-segmented in the black community. So, therefore, our opportunities to develop mistrust are equal across those various descriptors.

  • 12:36:38

    NNAMDIHere is Germa, in Baltimore. Germa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:43

    GERMAYeah, thank you very much for taking my call. I have a question. There is a lot of things going around saying that minority groups are not willing to take the vaccination. But has it been available? Has it been provided to them, or how soon are they going to get it into the, you know, the brown and color communities?

  • 12:37:04

    NNAMDIWell, you anticipated the next question I was going to put to Lola Fadulu. Lola, how many people in the region have been vaccinated, according to the most up-to-date information we have? And how has the rollout gone so far? Because Germa apparently has little or no information about how, where and when the vaccine is available.

  • 12:37:26

    FADULUSo, we are in week four of the vaccine rollout. And more than 220,000 people in the region have received at least one dose of the vaccine. And the officials have been prioritizing healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents. The rollout has been somewhat slow. The 220,000 doses that have been administered is just a fraction of what officials have received so far.

  • 12:38:05

    FADULUThere are several reason for that. Officials have pointed to reporting delays. Healthcare providers who are administering the doses are reporting to local health departments that they've done so, using new information systems that they're having to get adjusted to and to figure out how to use. But then there's also -- you know, one reason for this slow start could also be vaccine hesitancy.

  • 12:38:35

    NNAMDIWe know that the coronavirus, as we've said, has affected people of color and black people, in particular, more severely. Do you have any information, Lola, about whether communities of color are being given the attention that they need in terms of getting as much vaccine as they need?

  • 12:38:54

    FADULUSo, I know that -- and I'm sure Dr. Clarke will jump in, but I know that the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 has been working with groups across the city, including city health officials, to ensure that communities of color both have accurate information about the vaccine, but are also prioritized.

  • 12:39:20

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke?

  • 12:39:22

    CLARKEYes. So, actually, to Germa's question, the vaccine being rolled out to healthcare workers first is a priority. Actually, in the District, there's a high proportion of black and brown people who work in healthcare. And so, because those individuals have been prioritized first, actually, the opportunity to get it for black and brown people -- if they're in the occupation -- is equal. It's important to note that, as we go down the line, with residents who are institutionalized in nursing homes and their staff, that'll complete the first group.

  • 12:40:03

    CLARKEThe second group are individuals who have chronic disease and people over 65 who reside in the community. And then, finally, everyone else. And so, I think his question pertains most importantly to that everyone else group, when we get down to that, which will be much later in the year, especially given the delays that we've experienced in the vaccine rollout.

  • 12:40:26

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke, we've been hearing a lot, of course, about the Tuskegee Study. Many people of color have cited it as proof of racism within the healthcare industry. Can you tell us about the study and why it still affects many African-American attitudes about the healthcare system?

  • 12:40:45

    CLARKEWell, the Tuskegee Study took place starting in the '20w and spanned about 50 years, and it was an effort to understand what happens to people when they get syphilis. And the heinous crime that was committed with that study was there was a treatment for syphilis, and the people who participated in the study were not informed of the treatment, offered the treatment or even consented to being in the study and being observed in the way that they were.

  • 12:41:17

    CLARKESo, there was needless death, needless complications from syphilis, as a result. And it was really emblematic of just an attitude towards black people, that black people's lives didn't matter, as we still see today, in some instances. And the scars from that still persist today. The good thing about the Tuskegee Study, though, is this: Once it came to light, it caused a reformation of the whole way that medical research is conducted in this country, so that people have to be given informed consent. Everything has to be explained to you up front, and you have to sign and consent to be in a study.

  • 12:41:56

    CLARKEAnd then there's a lot of oversight that happens in studies. So, when we went about letting people know that COVID vaccine studies were going on, of course, Tuskegee was the main objection and concern. But it's important to note that these reformations have taken place, that black people are involved, not just as study participants, but as researchers.

  • 12:42:21

    CLARKEFor example, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett at NIH is an African-American researcher who helped to put together and develop the Moderna vaccine, which then got studied and, of course, has been approved for in all adult populations.

  • 12:42:37

    NNAMDINevertheless, the skepticism exists. Here is Braunda, in Arlington. Braunda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:46

    BRAUNDAHi. Thank you. Yes, I just wanted to share that I am not planning to seek the vaccination. And the reason is I understand that those with the O blood type are less at risk for getting the virus to begin with or suffering the horrific complications related to it. So, that's my reason for not seeking it at this time. I also feel that maybe...

  • 12:43:15

    NNAMDIWell, let's take it one at a time, Braunda. Dr. Clarke, would you care to respond to that?

  • 12:43:21

    CLARKEThere is research that has come out that show that people with negative -- you know, RH negative blood types and O blood types appear to be more protected, as she said, from getting coronavirus and getting severe complications of COVID. And what I tell people is this: Educate yourself about the vaccine. Talk to a trusted health professional about whether it is right for you. For the majority of people, it is, I think, a reasonable step to take, because COVID-19 has been killing the black community -- has been killing everybody, but us disproportionately -- two to three times more than the Caucasian population.

  • 12:44:07

    CLARKEAnd the risks of the vaccine, there are very few risks of the vaccine, and they pale in comparison to those of COVID-19. And even the O blood type and the negative blood type is not a silver bullet to guarantee that -- it's just a lesser risk. So, when we're talking about risk, of course, it's not a zero risk that you'll get it. It's just lesser than those who have a positive blood type or A, AB or A, AB blood type.

  • 12:44:38

    NNAMDIBraunda, you had a second point to make?

  • 12:44:40

    BRAUNDAYes, thank you. The other point is, I hope that, in time, more generations of the vaccine will be produced that are either safer, have less interactions, less allergic reactions, and maybe even have maybe synthetic versions of -- if there is an animal or human genetic component to it. Because if you have a concern with, like, whether it's kosher or halal or not, I would think, in the next generations, it might be safer, just less to be fearful of. So, that's my reason -- my hesitancy is thinking, in time, a safer vaccination will be available.

  • 12:45:28

    NNAMDISo, Braunda, what you're saying is that your plan B is -- your plan A is not to get the vaccination. Your plan B is to maybe wait until however long it takes to get another generation of the vaccination. That could be a year, two years, and you're going to be staying indoors until that time.

  • 12:45:48

    BRAUNDAWell, I go out now. I'm covered from head to toe now. I don't know when -- I expect as, you know, it's been out, there's less -- what do you call it -- less pressure, you know -- what do you call it -- politically on the pharmaceutical companies. But I think the economic pressure on those companies is -- the competition is going to produce more, better medicines that can vaccinate, just like with antihistamines. How many generations of Zyrtec are we on?

  • 12:46:25

    NNAMDIWell, let me be blunt. Dr. Clarke, do you feel that Braunda is merely rationalizing her skepticism?

  • 12:46:34

    CLARKEWell, I don't know Braunda, so I'm not going to presume to make a judgment. But I will say this: She brings up concerns about safety, and we do know the safety data that was from the trial, and we've had 4.6 million, at least, doses already administered. And it appears that there's no increased risk of immediate, severe anaphylactic allergic reaction above what previous vaccines have shown, which is about 1.3 episodes of that per million vaccines given.

  • 12:47:06

    CLARKEAnd, in these instances, no one has died. People have needed epinephrine. And some of the milder ones, obviously, can just be treated by things like Benadryl. And there's a protocol to watch people for half an hour after getting the vaccine to ensure that if they get it, that they will be treated appropriately. So, again, that risk pales in comparison to the death and the long-term, long COVID symptoms that we're seeing in people, in my humble opinion. And I think the statistics bear that out.

  • 12:47:41

    NNAMDILola Fadulu, you've interviewed people in this region who have received the vaccine on the first day it was available. How have they described the experience?

  • 12:47:50

    FADULUThe healthcare workers I spoke to, who were among the first to get vaccinated, were happy that we had reached the point in the pandemic where a vaccine was available. But they also understood that until they received their second dose, they needed to continue to follow public health guidelines such as wearing a mask and social distancing. And they also recognize that in order for the vaccine to be effective, more people needed to take it. So, the healthcare workers had sort of mixed feelings about it.

  • 12:48:34

    NNAMDIHere's someone who identifies as a healthcare worker, Gillian in Silver Spring, Maryland. Gillian, your turn.

  • 12:48:41

    GILLIANHi, Kojo. How you doing?

  • 12:48:43

    NNAMDII am doing well. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:46

    GILLIANSo, yes, I'm one of these healthcare workers who haven't gotten the vaccine yet. I actually do think it needs to be -- it needs to be made available to the general public, as well. They've made it available, but not mandatory. So, I know that there is a lot of healthcare workers who haven't gotten it, for whatever reason. I'm not in a rush. I've been -- I'm a veteran. I also (unintelligible) vaccinations. I've been vaccinated many times with (word?) smallpox and everything. But I -- and I've also been tested like almost weekly, COVID-negative every time.

  • 12:49:25

    GILLIANSo, I'm not in a rush, but I think that -- I don't know if it's the hesitancy or that the healthcare workers are not getting (unintelligible) the rest of the general public. And I hope that's not the case. I hope that, you know, you know, those who take our lives in our own hands, rightly or wrongly, should not -- that shouldn't prevent it from getting to the people who need to go out there, you know, maybe in the grocery stores or the bus drivers and stuff.

  • 12:49:52

    NNAMDIWell, when you say those of us who take our lives into our own hands, would you consider going out without a mask, Gillian?

  • 12:49:59

    GILLIANOh, no. I do. I go out with a mask.

  • 12:50:01

    NNAMDIOh, okay.

  • 12:50:01

    GILLIANYou know, I (unintelligible) I mean, I work -- I'm a social worker. I have to go out there. I do the PPE, the face shield. I have two masks on, N95 mask. You know, when I go into a room, a COVID room, I am -- right now, I am covered head to toe, you know. But there are people who are outside. And it can be spread by asymptomatic people, I'd say they're more at risk, because you don't know who has it. I mean, I go into a room, I know the person has it, but I know I'm covered.

  • 12:50:29


  • 12:50:30

    GILLIANAnd, yes, the people (unintelligible) but I am covered. I'm covered by the boots, double gloves, with the gown, with the mask, the face shield.

  • 12:50:39

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke, any advice for Gillian? She says she's, on the one hand, a nurse, on the other hand, not in a rush.

  • 12:50:46

    CLARKEAbsolutely. Let me mention that I'm a physician, and I got the vaccine -- Moderna vaccine exactly one week ago, and I feel fine. I initially had a headache, which I took Tylenol four hours after, and the headache went away. And I had a little bit of pain at the site of my injection, which went away after about two or three days and didn't prevent me from doing anything.

  • 12:51:09

    CLARKESo, the other thing I wanted to say about what I think I hear her saying is, you know, healthcare workers should not necessarily be prioritized over everyone else, but there is a logic behind the reason why that happened, and that's number one, because there is that high-risk exposure, but you're also potentially exposing, as a healthcare worker, patients to the virus. So, people who come into the hospital who don't have coronavirus can be exposed to it by a healthcare worker who has it and might be asymptomatic.

  • 12:51:42

    CLARKEThe second is that so the workforce doesn't get sick, so that there are enough people to continue to take care of the huge influx of COVID patients that we're seeing now, such as in L.A. and other hotspots around the country. We need to ensure that our healthcare workers stay healthy. So, that's the reason why. And then once all the healthcare workers are vaccinated or have been offered the vaccine -- let me say that -- that then we will move on to nursing home patients and staff and frontline workers right after that.

  • 12:52:16

    NNAMDIThank you very...

  • 12:52:16

    CLARKEAnd then the order that I mentioned before.

  • 12:52:18

    NNAMDIGillian, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. Lola, D.C.'s Department of Health is advising providers to give thawing vaccine doses to anyone willing to accept them. What can you tell us about that?

  • 12:52:31

    FADULUSo, I think there's been some confusion about this. So, earlier this year -- which is a couple of days ago -- a law school student was in the Giant food store in Northeast D.C. and was able to get the vaccine, even though he wasn't in a priority group, because the pharmacist had doses for first responders who weren't able to make their appointments. And if the doses weren't used, they would have gone -- they would've been wasted.

  • 12:53:12

    FADULUSo, D.C. Health has encouraged vaccinators to use the vaccines instead of throwing them away. But what that means is that, you know, for example, at a hospital, if frontline staff are cancelling appointments or are unable to get the dose and the dose is already thawed, then, in many cases, these hospitals have waiting lists where they can call on other healthcare workers or other workers in the hospital to get the vaccine. So, the goal is to ensure that these vaccines don't go to waste, but it isn't to just give it to anyone.

  • 12:53:57

    NNAMDIOkay. Here is Terri in Delaware, but he identifies as a D.C. native. Terri, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:04

    TERRIHi. Happy New Year, everyone. My question, I have two. I wanted to know, are the vaccines made in America? And I have not heard anyone discuss what the vaccines really contain. I would really like to know what they really contain. I heard someone say that they contained aborted fetuses, and I'm really concerned. So, that's my question (unintelligible) ...

  • 12:54:38

    NNAMDIDr. Clarke -- Dr. Clarke, you only have about one minute to debunk that rumor.

  • 12:54:44

    CLARKEYes. They are made in America, different manufacturing sites in major cities around the states. Number two, no, they don't contain parts of fetuses. The actual ingredients can be found at the FDA's website. Anybody can go there and look at them. It's primarily the messenger RNA, which is a code for making a very specific part of the virus that the immune system then responds to. And, by the way, when you get infected by coronavirus, you get the virus' messenger RNA. So, you get messenger RNA in your body when you get infected by any virus, by the way. So, this is not something that the vaccine is exposing you to that you would not otherwise be exposed to.

  • 12:55:35

    CLARKEAnd then there's a piece of fat -- there's like a little fat droplet that is...

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDIOnly got about 20 seconds left.

  • 12:55:42

    CLARKE...that it is contained in, and then other additives to make the body's immune response and to increase the immune response. And that's essentially what is in the vaccine.

  • 12:55:54

    NNAMDITerri, thank you for your call. Lola Fadulu, Dr. Melissa Clarke, thank you both for joining us. This segment on African-Americans and the coronavirus vaccine was produced by Richard Cunningham. And our conversation about today's demonstrations to overturn the presidential election was produced by Cydney Grannan.

  • 12:56:10

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, more than 12,000 people have died of COVID-19 in this region. We reflect on the magnitude of the loss and listeners, Washingtonians, share memories of their loved ones. Then we look back on the lives of local public figures who passed away in 2020 and what we can take away from the legacies they leave behind. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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