As the world tries to escape from the grips of a deadly pandemic, America is also battling another, perhaps more formidable foe that is taking over the country.
Aside from anti-masks Maggies screaming at school board members and Walmart cashiers, nothing has fueled the spread of COVID-19 as much as factless ruminations of people who crowdsourced their scientific training from the Facebook School of Medicine. But vaccine hesitancy and ranting about the government conspiracy theories are not the exclusive purviews of people who own MAGA hats. The Black community is not immune from the misinformation epidemic spreading across the country.
To dispel some of these myths and misconceptions, we spoke to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases for more than three decades. But, since there are some people who will still dismiss the medical expertise of a doctor and researcher who has served under seven presidents, we wanted to juxtapose his advice with trusted doctors who are committed to the Black community and are on the front lines fighting COVID.
Dr. Sulieman Wazeerud-Din has practiced emergency medicine for more than a decade. He is the medical director for Atlanta Medical Center South’s emergency department and serves as the assistant chief medical officer for Atlanta Medical Center. After attending the Mohammad Schools, Georgia’s first accredited PreK-12 Islamic school, he completed medical school at the Morehouse School of Medicine and returned to offer medical care to the residents of his hometown Atlanta.
Dr. Sandra Ford is the founder and medical director of Internal Medicine Affiliates, her private practice in Birmingham, Ala. She also serves as the medical director of A Promise To Help (APTH), a healthcare charity she founded alongside her husband, Henry. On the first Saturday of every month, APTH and a group of medical students provide free healthcare to the residents of more than 13 counties in Alabama’s Black Belt–one of the poorest regions in America. In 19 years, she has missed one day (It wasn’t her fault. Blame the tornado).
I think they’ll do.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: My first message would be that the African-American community has suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. The infection rate is higher, and when one gets infected among the African-American community, the likelihood that you will get a severe outcome leading to hospitalizations. And in some cases, death is higher than the general population.
So it’s even more important for people in the African-American community to get vaccinated. The vaccines are highly effective. They’re very safe, they’re convenient, and they’re free.
Dr. Sandra Ford: I would say that it’s natural to be skeptical and there’s they shouldn’t get their medical advice from the internet or TV; you should take any questions or concerns to your family physician or a doctor you trust. As African Americans, we are more prone to the comorbidities that exacerbate COVID-19, so if you are diabetic, have hypertension, are dealing with a heart condition, asthma or have weight issues, you look at this vaccine as preventative care. That’s all it is.
Dr. Sulieman Wazeerud-Din: I’ll tell you a story.
I’m in freaking Florida, right? It’s my first day working as a medical student in the emergency department doing my rotation. Dude comes in with no legs; they’re severed, a belt around his leg, he’s broken up and in cardiac arrest. Right. His friend comes in as well, who was in the same accident. But he’s talking!
Guess who had their seatbelt on? The dude who was talking. Guess who died? The dude who didn’t have his seatbelt on!
If you think about it, that sums up coronavirus right now, bro. We’re all riding in the same timeframe. If I have my seatbelt on, I may get a few cuts and bruises, but if you don’t have your seatbelt on, you’re gonna die.
Dr. Fauci: We’re asking people to trust science. [The COVID vaccines] have been given to literally hundreds of millions of people who have benefited from it. So we really very, very much implore the African-American community for your own safety for that of your family. And for that of your community to get vaccinated, it could be life-saving for you. And it also will prevent the spread within your own community.
Dr. Ford: We go to those areas that have the most poverty and the least access. We’ve been doing this for 19 years and I’ll run into adults who remember when I treated their parents. They’ll even ask “Do you remember me?” and I always do, so they kinda trust me.
But when they are skeptical about the vaccine, I tell them: “Ma’am, this is not a government thing. I’m here by the grace of God.” I don’t have any agenda. Nobody pays me to come here, so I don’t have a motive. I don’t have a motive. And it’s not like I’ve been coming down here for 19 years doing this for free, just waiting for this moment. Why would we be representing the government?
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: I’m a board-certified emergency physician, right? It’s how I feed my family. It took a third of my life to become one. And my board put out a notice that says if I go out there and perpetuate misinformation, they can take my board license because, inherently, I was not listening to the scientific research.
So if you think the government isn’t gonna protect Black people, why do you think they’re gonna protect me? Do you think I’d risk it all for the government?
It was private companies who developed mRNA vaccines because they were doing research for years. It was the private companies who developed tests. I don’t know why people think the government is doing all this healthcare research but not providing healthcare...
If the government wanted to poison you, they could just put it in the regular vaccines that, by the way, you have to take to go to school or college. If they wanted to track you, they don’t have to put a chip in your arm. You got a cell phone? They can track you with that. They can track you with your credit card. They can track you with your car. So step away from BS and just think about the facts. Use reason!
Don’t trust me. Trust the science.
Dr. Fauci: One of the things that we are fighting against in this terrible outbreak is the co-epidemic of misinformation that is mostly in social media. And the only way the media I believe can help to counter this is to just keep putting in front of the public, the African-American community, the right, correct, evidence-based data and information.
Dr. Ford: First we have to realize there’s a difference between anti-vaxxers and people who are vaccine-reluctant. And a lot of us are not necessarily saying “it’s my right” or going against the mainstream. We are just hesitant about medicine in general. Some people are just afraid of doctors and needles and they don’t want to say it, so I can sometimes convince them.
Because the news comes from big cities, we don’t even seem to talk about lack of access anymore. Some of these people live waaay out in the country, where the closest major hospital is sometimes a 45-minute drive. When we first started, one lady told us that if she had a heart attack, she’d rather die at home. “I refuse to die in route to a facility, in an ambulance. So whatever I got, I’m just going to keep it because by the time I get to where I’m going, and by the time they come way out here to get me, then I just might’ve well die at home with dignity.”
For instance, there’s one physician in Lowndes County, Ala. One physician and no hospital. So there is still a lack of access in the poor, rural areas. But my medical students are going to people who are non-ambulatory and trapped at home and can’t get out to vaccinate people. After we have shaved that layer off, we’re still dealing now with hesitancy.
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: Well, we were always going to be playing catch-up. Remember, the vaccine rolled out to seniors first, and the Black life expectancy was six years shorter than white life expectancy. But we’re really at a crossroads now. Three or four months ago, we were seeing people who were hesitant until a community member or a family member either got COVID or died from COVID. So a lot of people who were on the fence about getting vaccinated eventually came and got vaccinated.
What we’re seeing now are people who are holding out, who are steadfast in not getting vaccinated. We’re at a point where if you’re not vaccinated by now, you probably won’t get vaccinated...So, unfortunately, either you’re gonna get COVID or you’ll be fortunate enough to have healthy behaviors where you don’t get COVID. I’ll be honest with you, man. The people now I’m seeing now, (sigh) I don’t know. I don’t know. [They’re] like I’m just not doing it and have no real rational reason why. And the lame excuses are what’s killing folks. That’s why we’re at the point where we are now.
Dr. Fauci: There are all kinds of conspiracy theories and absolute fantasy type information that vaccines can magnetize you or it can make you sterile or make you this or make you that, which is complete nonsense.
Dr. Ford: I hear a lot about the Tuskegee experiment. You have to realize, some of these people have relatives and friends who actually were part of it. A lot of them still don’t know a lot about the Tuskegee experiment. They don’t know that the cure for syphilis didn’t exist at the beginning. They don’t know doctors didn’t inject people with a disease; they withheld treatment. So it’s almost like we’re doing the Tuskegee experiment to ourselves.
A lot of times, in the rural areas, they may work with rural whites who were really big Trump supporters who may have a political agenda. I know we like to blame Facebook but a lot of times, access to broadband is very limited and the only TV they might get is Fox TV. So they don’t really have another perspective on it and they will have fears about it. They’re not founded in any medical reality. And, you know, to be honest with you, it seems like it’s more, uh, prevalent among African-American men.
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: We hear about patients who don’t want something in their body that hasn’t been researched. They don’t want their DNA to be altered. “I don’t want the government to put a chip in my body. The Tuskegee experiment. I’ve heard all of it.
What’s interesting about the Tuskegee thing is that a lot of people think scientists injected patients with syphilis. If you’ve ever been to Tuskegee, you know it’s a small all-Black town. So I wonder if they think we have a separate vaccine for white people?
Where does it come from? It comes from everywhere, man. If I ask someone to explain how DNA works, they can’t. But they still think they know about immunology.
Dr. Fauci: The idea that these vaccines were rushed in their approval and therefore they’re not safe, is just not true at all. It was very carefully done all the studies. And you can go to the CDC website and see the ingredients in each vaccine.
Dr. Ford: They don’t realize that people have been working on mRNA vaccines for years and they actually went through all of the phases.
It’s so funny that I have a lady who said she’s not taking that vaccine because her daughter took the flu vaccine and she immediately went to the hospital and she had pneumonia...Well, now one of the other consultants had given her a new medicine and I asked her what it was. She said: “A blue pill.”
I’m like, wow, you’re so concerned about a vaccine. Would you take a blue pill that you don’t even know the name of? Or any of the side effects? And it turns out, the pill was made by the same people who make the vaccine!
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: Someone will go to buy some wings or to McDonald’s and get a not-so-well beef burger that’s deemed healthy by the same agency that approved the vaccine. If you think about the life expectancy decrease, all the medical advancements you trusted over the last 20 years have been erased by this virus.
My company has a daily COVID call. We gather information from the CDC, the Cleveland Clinic, the College of Immunology, other research hospitals. The vaccine has been out so long that researchers and doctors have done their own research, so if there was a problem with the vaccine, we’d know it by now. That’s how we found out about problems with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That’s how we know the vaccine’s efficacy declines after a while. We’re not just trusting Pfizer or the government, we basically have all the doctors in the country reporting the results.
I noticed that [Fauci] seems to have an aversion to the term breakthrough infection. Should we have another word for it?
Dr. Fauci: You know, I liked that proposal because the idea of the word breakthrough has such a negative connotation to it and I’m not sure what we can call it. We could call it “a mild infection in a vaccinated person,” which doesn’t have a snappy tone to it, but really says it much better than using the word breakthrough; it gives the connotation that the virus has defeated the vaccine.
Dr. Ford: I don’t like it either because it makes people think there was a fight between the vaccine and the virus and the virus won. If if you give a hundred million people a vaccine, and the vaccine is 90 percent effective, 10 million people are going to still get the virus. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In fact, it means that the vaccine is working because vaccinated people are still less likely to die, which is the point of the vaccine.
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: I’ll be honest with you. I’m an emergency physician, so I don’t see many breakthrough infections. People who got vaccinated might get infected but vaccinated folks rarely get sick enough to come to the hospital. I just don’t see it! If they do, it’s usually because they have other health problems along with COVID.
No vaccine can stop a virus from getting into your body. It’s supposed to stop the virus from doing damage when it gets inside your body. Look at it this way. If someone broke into your house, would you rather have a slingshot or an AK-47 and a bulletproof vest? Well, the vaccine is your bulletproof vest and your AK-47.
Some people think that vaccines cause the virus to mutate. Will more vaccinations cause more variants?
Dr. Fauci: No, the more vaccines you do, it gives it less of a chance of mutating. When you have a virus that freely circulates in an unvaccinated society, that gives the virus ample opportunity to mutate. And when you give it the opportunity to mutate, you give it the opportunity to form a new variant, which might actually escape the protection of the vaccine.
Dr. Ford: We gave out gift certificates and ended up vaccinating 100 people this weekend. And a lot of people asked: “Why should you have to do that to make people get vaccines?”
Well, I think we should do that because it’s helping me. It’s helping you because if they get vaccinated, it ultimately will affect whether or not we get more variants and mutations.
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: That’s not how viruses work. Viruses are just like babies–they need people to feed them and a place to live before they can replicate or make more virus babies. Let’s say that all of the virus babies are exactly like the mama virus except one. That one is the variant. But if the mama virus doesn’t have a nice comfortable place to live, the mama dies. If the virus dies, it can’t replicate. If it can’t replicate, there won’t be more variants. So that’s what the vaccine does.
Dr. Fauci: That’s entirely up to us. If we get the overwhelming proportion of the 80 million or so people who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet gotten vaccinated, we can avoid a full surge. It really is within our power to do that. If people continued to avoid getting vaccinated, we certainly could see a fall surge.
Dr. Ford: If we don’t continue to fight this fight, it will. We hope that this pandemic makes people understand the importance of preventative care and lack of access to healthcare. And we need vaccinated people to keep wearing their masks and washing their hands.
Dr. Wazeerud-Din: I don’t know what will happen if it does. We are running out of places to put more sick people. We can’t even bury them fast enough.
If we don’t kill it now and the virus somehow figures out how to become more virulent—and that’s what the Delta variant is—it’s gonna be like Thanos in this motherfucker.