WebMD’s Chief Medical Officer, John Whyte, MD, speaks with Karyne Jones, President & CEO, National Caucus and Center on Black Aging (NCBA), about ensuring vaccine equity across all communities and how education can help overcome vaccine hesitancy.
JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. You’re watching Coronavirus in Context. I’m Dr. John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD.
We’ve been seeing a lot of reports about vaccination rates going way up, so it’s no coincidence that new cases and deaths are going way down. But not everyone is benefiting equally from vaccinations. Just as we saw with cases, people of color are being disproportionately impacted.
So to help shed some light in terms of what we need to do to address the issue of equity, the issue of education as we talk about vaccine distribution, I’ve asked one of the best experts around. Please welcome Karyne Jones. She’s the president and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging.
Karyne is also convening member of the COVID-19 Vaccine, Education, and Equity Project, a national coalition for more than 200 patient, provider, and public health organizations that have come together to advance public education and equity around COVID-19 vaccines. That’s a long introduction, but I wanted to get it in. Welcome Karyne.
KARYNE JONES: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JOHN WHYTE: Well, let’s start off and explain to our viewers, what do we mean by equity? Everyone is throwing that term around. Is it disparity? Is it equity? What are we trying to do as it relates to vaccines?
KARYNE JONES: Well, in terms of vaccines, it means access and equal access. I can just tell you that early on the impact of this virus on the African-American community, and actually communities of color, were horrible, and that’s as a result of a long time neglect of communities having access to quality health care. When you have communities that suffer from chronic disease, who have not had the opportunity to have insurance, or either they’re under-insured, then this is what you get.
They always say that when America catches a cold, communities of color get pneumonia, and that’s as a result of, again, them not having access to the quality health care. Not just access to a clinic, or an opportunity to go get your blood pressure taken, or what have you, but we mean access to making sure that all their health needs are addressed. And it’s not based on costs. It’s not based on if you have insurance. It’s based on that every human has a right, and it’s not a privilege, a right to quality health care.
JOHN WHYTE: So we know when it came to COVID infections people of color were disproportionately impacted, partly because of those chronic diseases that you mentioned, a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, but also because they were also frontline workers. But when the manufacturers developed the vaccines, there was a better commitment to be honest, than usual in enrolling people of color. But now that the vaccine is out, we’re seeing there’s lower uptake in communities of color. The percentage of whites compared with the population is higher in terms of the Caucasian community, less so in the Black and Brown communities.
Why is that? Is it an issue of access? Is it an issue of education? What’s going on?
KARYNE JONES: It’s always an issue of access. Unfortunately, I was very, very concerned early on when we were dealing with the hesitancy conversation that they kept talking about, particularly in the African-American community, that there would be some hesitancy to taking the vaccine. Totally understood that we in our community are very reluctant on processes, like vaccine– and it goes far beyond the Tuskegee Project, which everyone talks about. But it also talks about just medical experimentation that has occurred going back to slavery to now. And so there is always some reluctance.
And then there was concern– and it wasn’t limited just to communities of color– was concern about the rapidity, how quickly they were getting the vaccine developed, because everyone knows it takes a while to get a medication or a vaccine approved through the process and clinical trials. Were they going to be included and be diverse of different communities? Were they going to include different people? So there were just so many concerns.
However, what we found as we went along is that the hesitancy was, we believe, used as a way of not sending the vaccine to communities, because they felt like the demand wouldn’t be there. And so why send it? It has a shelf life, why send it to communities if they’re hesitant? Let’s send it to communities, where we know–
JOHN WHYTE: We don’t know that. So there were fewer vaccines being distributed. They’re saying–
KARYNE JONES: We believe that. I don’t have any documentation.
JOHN WHYTE: All right.
KARYNE JONES: I’m just saying the discussion around many places on why isn’t a vaccine site set up in this community when we know they’ve been impacted the most, and all they would say is, well, we thought they might be hesitant. Well, no, that was not the case. So we were very concerned about that.
That has totally changed now. We know that they engaged churches. They engaged senior centers. They engaged places where people know, and where people knew that there were trusted leadership–
KARYNE JONES: –organizations that they believed in. And so any hesitancy or concern about the vaccine was pretty much eliminated for a lot of people.
JOHN WHYTE: Through education?
KARYNE JONES: Through education. It is the most important thing. And what we’ve learned, not only through COVID, is– obviously, it has put a spotlight on inequity. We know that. But it’s also been given us an opportunity on how we can address making sure that people have the information.
Information is power. And if you give people information, then they can be advocates for their own health. And they can make the right decisions.
And so right now, we see a great number of our African-American seniors really wanting to take the vaccine. And the only problem they had was– I don’t have transportation, I don’t know how to navigate the appointment process, I don’t have internet. I mean, those were the barriers. But now we’ve had organizations, sororities, fraternities, church groups, who have really stepped up and made sure that those kind of barriers are out of the way.
Now, we’ve got to work on younger people, who, as you know, all young people think they’re immortal. And so we’ve got to make sure that they get the message. And they’ll know the importance that it’s not about just them that it’s about their loved ones and their community.
JOHN WHYTE: So access is getting better? Because, I have to tell you, I get frustrated when I hear the common statistic, everyone lives within five miles of a pharmacy. Well, if you don’t have a car, if you don’t have public transportation, you don’t have an Uber car, an app, 5 miles is pretty far. And in some areas, particularly in rural communities, they’re starting to bring the vaccine to the people that live in those areas, as opposed to saying, you come to me. Is that helping address issues of access?
KARYNE JONES: It is helping. And I must say that I think there are so many organizations and groups who have really taken the task on of knowing that they’ve got to go to where people are. And they know people have a hard time getting to a doctor’s office when they have a cold. You can imagine that they can’t get to their vaccines sites. So we’re addressing those things.
But what our organization, the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project, we wanted to make sure that people had information. So there were no barriers in terms of worrying about, well– we want to make sure they wanted to get the vaccine. So we focus very hard on making sure information was given to as many trusted leaders, communities, organizations, so that people would have the information, and that we wouldn’t have the problem so much as not wanting to take it, but how do I get to it. And I think there’s been a really good job on that.
Now, we’ve got a long way to go. We know that still have to reach a lot of people. And with the elimination in so many states of not wearing masks, and what have you– some people may say, well, everybody else is vaccinated, so I don’t really have to get it. That’s not the case. And so we’ve got to continue our education process and giving people information, so that we can really move out of this, and really move back to some normalcy.
JOHN WHYTE: And you say information is power. But let’s be honest, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. So how do we help viewers that are trying to become informed, trying to educate themselves figure out what is accurate information and what’s just bunk that’s just not true?
KARYNE JONES: It’s difficult. It’s difficult, because we are going against social media, where there are no limits to what anybody can put on there. Early on, like this time last year, we were answering questions like, no, Coronavirus was not caused by 5G. No, Coronavirus was not created in a lab and specifically put in certain communities. And so we’ve had to deal with all of those kinds of misinformation. But again, that’s where trusted leaders and working with trusted organizations, and churches, and things people go to and get their information, that’s why it’s important to empower them with the information. And I think we’ve done a really good job of reaching out and expanding our networks.
I know for NCBA, we work very hard to work obviously in senior areas, but now we are really looking more inter-generational. And we want to make sure that people understand that as they age, they want to age healthy, so we got to start young. You don’t wait until you’re 50 decide that you got to eat right, and exercise, get your vaccines, do all that. You’ve got to start early and start planning though, so that when you get to be an older adult, you’re healthier and you’re able to maintain your good health.
JOHN WHYTE: Storytelling is important. It’s important to understand why someone decided to get a vaccine. I know you were hesitant about getting the vaccine. And here you’re involved with the issue, you’re educated, you’re informed. Tell us your story, Karyne, about your hesitancy and why you ultimately decided to get vaccinated?
KARYNE JONES: Yeah, well, a year ago I had publicly stated I was not going to get the vaccine. I felt like– and I must tell you, it was a little bit of my own political beliefs that this talk about getting a vaccine done in such a hurry, and the whole thing. That concerns me. And so I said, well, and if I do change my mind, I’m going to wait and see how it affects other people and what have you. And so I was very, very hesitant.
And then I said, let me educate myself, as I would do with anything. And I started educating myself, and then I got together with Sue. And we talked about it.
And I got together with everybody else, and we then formed this coalition, which has now grown to over 200 organizations, which, again, expands our network across the country. And once I got the information, once I followed the clinical trials and make sure that there was a diverse participation in those clinical trials, once we followed the approval process and we saw how the gold standard was met, there were no shortcuts, then I was very, very comfortable with it. And I was one of the first to try to get in line to get my vaccine. And I wanted to make sure that the people that I care about, the people I love, and the people in my community who I serve that they had that same information.
JOHN WHYTE: Karyne, thank you for sharing your story and sharing information about what you were doing with the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging is doing, as well as with your work, and I want to thank the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project. To learn more about their work and for free resources in both English and Spanish, visit COVIDVaccineProject.org, or you can follow them on Twitter at COVID VX Project. There you can learn more about their campaign called Count Me In, and you might even see some familiar faces.
And if you’re staying, and I hope you are, Count Me In for COVID-19 vaccination, be sure to share why and submit your photo at COVIDVaccineProj ect.org/CountMeIn. Karyne, thanks again. Thanks for all you’re doing. And I hope to talk to you more about the work that the council is doing.
KARYNE JONES: Thank you so much for having me. And everybody get vaccinated.