NORRISTOWN — More than 450 people joined a panel of physicians, faith leaders and elected officials online Thursday evening to discuss "Facts Not Fear: COVID-19 Vaccines and the Black Community."

Roughly 665 people registered, and about 450 tuned in for the discussion, which centered on answering questions from area residents concerning disparities and inequities for African Americans experiencing effects of the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

“I don’t think this conversation is about the elimination of fear. I think that would be unfair to people, particularly African Americans who have been Black their entire time in America,” said Rev. Marshall Mitchell, a pastor at Salem Baptist Church in Abington. “How could you not be fearful? How could you not be wary?”

“How could you not be leery of something that is killing us at a heightened level, and then to know that we have been at the lowest rung on the ladder, socioeconomically, and with respect to the availability of health care for us,” he continued. “So I think fear is an absolutely legitimate emotion for people, and I think we would be doing the history of America a disservice right now if we simply asked people to not be fearful.”

Throughout the town hall, panelists sought to encourage people to get vaccinated by assuring listeners of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

“Keep having the conversations, get your questions answered, but don’t take too long because when it’s gone it’s gone,” said Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. “And Black people are the ones who’ve been impacted the most from this disease in terms of the rates of death and the rates of disease.”

Moderated by Montgomery County Commissioners’ Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr., the panel consisted of Mitchell, Stanford, Rev. Charles W. Quann, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House, and Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, a senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh.

More than 100 people submitted questions ahead of the 7 p.m. town hall meeting, according to a county spokesperson, and another 100 queries were posted in the Zoom chat box as the discussion unfolded.

Black community most affected

Why is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the African American community more than others? Lawrence asked.

“It’s a multitude of reasons, and the ones we can do something about is what we’ve been working on in the BDCC, and that’s access, and advocacy, and education,” Stanford said.

Stanford pointed out a variety of roadblocks. “In the beginning the narrative was it’s because Black people are sicker; it’s because they have more co-morbid health conditions ... and I was always pushing that it’s access,” she said. “It’s because so many of us were trying to get tested and at the time the message was don't come to the hospital until you’re really, really sick.

“So everybody waited, and by the time they got to the hospital, they were so far gone that the supportive measures ... oxygen, laying on your stomach, steroids, antivirals, antibacterials, things that we all know help,” she continued. “It was too far gone. I mean people died at the front door. They died in the waiting room. They never even made it, right?”

“So there was an element of that, and that is access, that’s health disparities, that’s what has existed in our country for longer than most of us have been living,” she went on to say.

“Then, yes there are people who are overweight, and who smoke, and who have sleep apnea, and who have cardiac disease, and who have diabetes, and had conditions that were undiagnosed and when they got hit with this virus that attacked your respiratory system, they didn’t have a chance because they were already standing on one leg anyway,” she continued.

There were also other factors, Stanford acknowledged, from “social determinants of health, where you lived, your educational level, who your doctor is, do they look like you, are they culturally competent?”

“These are all things that impacted your health outcome, now completely exacerbated because we have this ridiculously transmissible infectious disease that is spreading and loves to live in dense environments, spreads like crazy in multigenerational households, spreads like crazy in face front employees, which many African-Americans are … and then you add the history and the untrustworthy health care system that many of us grew up, and I said to someone, ‘when we grew up, we didn't go to the hospital unless you were about to die,’” Stanford said. “You didn’t go.”

“When you grow up with that, even though there’s a pandemic, you’re not running,” she went on to say. 

Inequities amid COVID-19

“I think of all of these socioeconomically inspired realities why Black people are so fragile in the American ecosystem,” Mitchell said. “There’s so many gaps, and so much of it … goes right back to health, it goes back to opportunity and these other big unaddressed things that are gaping wounds in America’s history, and when … something that’s so transmissible that’s looking for a host ... they naturally find and look for the Black victims because there are so many other things that America has left unaddressed.”

Waller agreed.

“The reality is when America has a cold, the Black community has the flu, and if this is exacerbated by all of the other issues that impact the ... reality of what it means to be Black in America,” Waller said. “And so tonight while we’re talking about coronavirus, ... the equity conversation needs to continue because there’s going to be something else and we’ll be back here talking about it again."

Other panelists grappled with the notion of mistrust.

“I think white America who trusted science listened to Anthony Fauci,” Mitchell said. “Black America, who didn’t trust anything going on in America listened to Ala Stanford, and I think that should be very instructive for us.”

“Well, Pastor Mitchell, I feel compelled to say here too I was listening to Dr. Fauci,” Lawrence replied. “I didn’t have any symptoms, I felt fine, but Dr. Stanford made me get a test in Pottstown, and I said, ‘I don’t need a test,’ because that’s when we were short on tests, and she said, ‘I see what you do, I see you’re out there you get the test.’ Lo and behold, I came back positive, but that was because of Dr. Stanford.”

Cases of vaccination 'inequity' 

In Montgomery County, doses of the Moderna vaccine have begun being administered into the arms of those in the 1A category, which initially consisted of those in professions vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, such as medical first responders, doctors, dentists, and home health aides.

Those who would be next in line included teachers and seniors over 75 who could begin receiving a vaccine by the beginning of February, Arkoosh said earlier this month at the opening of the vaccination clinic at Montgomery County Community College’s Blue Bell campus.

But last week, the 1A category was expanded to include anyone 65 years of age or older, or people ages 18 to 64 with a specific health condition, according to the state’s health department. Arkoosh estimated that there are now approximately 250,000 people who could qualify in the first priority category.

County leaders, including Lawrence and Arkoosh, were visibly perplexed by this action as they spoke candidly Thursday evening.

“These are the people who have been working on the front lines since this pandemic started who have now been pushed to the back of the line, and I know we follow the Department of Health guidance on this but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me,” Lawrence said.

“I can’t defend this from an equity standpoint at all,” Arkoosh said. “I think it’s a mistake, and I am continuing to pursue ways to get around this if it’s possible because I don’t think it’s fair, and the communities that have bore the brunt of this disease have also kept our world running during this pandemic, when others had the luxury of working from home. In my view, they’re the heroes, and they should have been right at the front of the line right behind those actual hospital and health care workers.”

In the meantime, panelists urged patience and stressed the importance of continuing to follow common-sense health and safety practices.

“Look, we’re fighting a war, and when you’re fighting a war you’ve got to use every weapon at your disposal: mask, washing hands, social distancing, canceling church in person, doing things differently and so I'm committed too,” Mitchell said.

Why take the vaccine?

“I was scared. I was really scared about the vaccine. I cried about it, I prayed about it because I had COVID, and I was like I have antibodies. I'm not taking this vaccine,” said Stanford. “I don't know enough about it, and there were so many people who said well if Dr. Stanford’s not taking it, I’m not taking it —and it was such a heavy weight, and I decided that I wasn’t gonna be afraid, so maybe you wouldn’t be afraid, and that’s why I did it.”

“So maybe it would lessen your fears knowing that I’m a wife, and I’m a mother, and I’m a leader, and I’m a daughter, and I’m so much to so many people that I wouldn't put something in my body that I thought would take me away from them,” she continued.

Panelists implored people to get their information from verified sources.

“Make sure they have a degree. Make sure that their reasons are founded in science,” Stanford said.

Quann agreed, adding that trusted voices should also be consulted.

“One I think that we do listen to science, but we also listen to those African-Americans who have the interest of us,” Quann said.

While Thursday night’s town hall was just a start, panelists concurred that the conversation needs to continue.

“We have to talk about how government, faith communities and responsible individuals help Black people totally fit into the American experiment, and that’s the larger conversation here,” Waller said. “So we’re here tonight to remind the system that they need to treat Black people fairly and that we need to own the problem of the system and address it, not just coronavirus, but address the larger issues of equity and our people.”

@rachelravina on Twitter

Rachel Ravina is a journalist covering news and lifestyle features in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Blue Bell and graduated from Penn State. She's also a news enthusiast who is passionate about covering topics people want to read.

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