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Tackling Coronavirus Vaccine Inequities

AU’s Jody Gan brings medical experts and communities together to share COVID-19 facts

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A person receiving the Covid-19 vaccineAs AU Health Studies Professorial Lecturer Jody Gan watched the slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine across the nation, and the lack of racial and economic equity among recipients, she wanted to help. The challenge, as she and other public health professionals see it, is twofold — to address the understandable concerns about the safety of the vaccine, especially for people of color, and to make it easier for vulnerable populations to access the vaccine. 

Gan jumped into action, enlisting the help of DC’s Temple Sinai, where she is a congregant, as well as the Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church and the Washington Interfaith Network. She wanted to work with trusted religious organizations to reach communities with more vaccine hesitant members who might not otherwise receive an opportunity to ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Gan’s work paid off. More than 150 people attended a virtual COVID-19 vaccine informational forum this week. Gan co-moderated the event, which featured renowned public health experts who answered questions about the COVID vaccine’s safety and efficacy. The speakers were an all-star public health panel: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a renowned immunologist who works with Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, Director of the DC Department of Health; Anita Jenkins, CEO of Howard University Hospital and a champion of the COVID vaccine; and Emory Fellowship Church’s congregant Sidnie Christian, a COVID-19 contact tracer and graduate student in epidemiology who has been a helpful resource to her congregation.

Bridging Medicine and Community

Gan’s co-moderator was Nicole Mitchell, a nurse practitioner in Maryland who regularly cares for sick patients. She and her immediate family members contracted COVID-19 several months ago. Yet she still found herself hesitant to get the COVID vaccine when it was first offered to her — after all, she had COVID-19 antibodies. But as she learned more, she changed her mind. “It was the science, the extensive research, and the experts behind making the vaccination that changed my perspective,” she says. “It was imperative that I am an example for my patients. I have received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and besides a really sore arm, I had no other side effects. I am now awaiting the second dose in a few days.”

Mitchell, who is African American, said she’s excited to educate her patients, especially those who look like her, because there is hesitancy among the African American community when it comes to the vaccine. “I want to be that bridge between medicine, the community, and my patients,” Mitchell explains. “My goal here is not to force anyone’s hand regarding vaccinations, but to give evidence-based data on the importance of vaccines and the potential to finally have some type of normalcy.”

Public Health Luminaries

Mitchell’s story set the tone for the evening, which was one of sharing the latest COVID-19 medical facts. Nesbitt answered questions about how the vaccine is being administered in the District of Columbia, and who is eligible to receive it. Jenkins shared information about the vaccine rollout among employees at Howard University Hospital, and her efforts to build trust and reduce fear — including getting the vaccine herself as soon as it was available to her. Christian explained the concept of herd immunity and what life might look like once it is achieved.

And then Corbett answered questions about how and why the vaccine was developed so quickly, how it works, and why it is safe. Corbett was directly involved in the development of the Moderna vaccine and was recently described by ABC News as “someone who will go down in history as one of the key players in developing the science that could end the pandemic.”

When asked about clinical trials for Moderna, and how many African American participated in them, Corbett shared the numbers, explaining that it is extremely important to test vaccines in diverse sets of people, ideally a group that mirrors the population that will eventually take the vaccine. In the United States, 13.4 percent of the population is African American. In the Phase 3 clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine, 10 percent of the volunteers were African American. “We can clearly say that the vaccine works, and it is safe in African American people, as well as everyone else,” Corbett explained.

And when asked if different groups of people should take the vaccine, Corbett’s message was clear. “Yes,” she said. “As long as you are in an FDA-approved group, you should get the vaccine.”

Meeting People Where They Are

Gan says that she was thrilled by the expert panelists who agreed to appear, the turnout at the event, and the many questions asked by the audience — all under the warm embrace of the two congregations’ spiritual leaders.

“We can’t leave this Herculean task to the local health departments alone. It’s our job as public health professionals to assist by meeting people where they are, listening to concerns, and finding trusted medical officials to provide answers to questions,” she says. “One way to do this is by organizing online gatherings of community groups, such as those affiliated with churches, mosques, and synagogues, where members can get their questions answered. Another is by working to provide information in zip codes where vaccination rates are low. Sharing information from trusted medical authorities about both the safety of the vaccine (and how to get vaccinated) is a key strategy for addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color.”

Gan has involved her AU students in the forum’s planning process, and many of them attended the forum virtually. Leah Goldberg (BA public health ’23) was one of them. “Seeing Professor Gan in her element was a unique experience because I saw her implement the concepts she teaches. Watching her lead the webinar allowed me to see what a career in public health may look like day to day,” Goldberg says. “She interacted with her colleagues with the same energy and professionalism that she brings to the classroom/ZOOMroom, and seeing her authenticity among all facets of her work is the reason she is such a strong educator!”

The forum feedback from the church and synagogue audiences were overwhelmingly positive, Gan says. Event organizers are working to translate the presentation into Spanish to reach an even broader audience, and Gan is already working with her new partners in planning a follow-up event this spring.