Doctor Tackles Vaccine Misinformation

    COVID-19 has not only been a major new health challenge, it has also exposed an old problem that continues to impact the well-being of minority communities: can you trust the medical profession? According to Dr. Jerome Adams, the former Surgeon General of the United States—and only the third African American to hold that high government medical office—resistance to the coronavirus vaccine among Black people has been higher than in other groups because of past injustices.

    That kind of reluctance is nothing new. While most years between 55-60% of all Americans get a flu shot, the percentage is much lower among Blacks “and, coincidentally, a significantly greater percentage of them die from the flu,” he notes. Vaccine hesitancy has been around for a long time, Adams says, observing that “there are people with other agendas—monetary agendas, political agendas—who seek to do us harm by spreading misinformation that spreads like wildfire.”

    Strangely, one of the common reasons given for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine is actually a misreading of history, Adams says—the scandalous treatment of Black men in the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
    Vaccine opponents refer to the incident as an example of medical mistreatment of Black people—while actually, it was a failure to treat them at all, Adams points out. The men were unknowingly withheld medication as part of an infamous trial for which President Bill Clinton issued a formal government apology in 1997.

    “It was about denial of treatment for Black men,” Adams explains. “Now, we have a treatment [for the coronavirus] that’s highly effective and highly safe, and people are being preyed upon by misinformation in this, such that they’re refusing to take this vaccine. Before, we complained because they wouldn’t give us treatment. Now we’re complaining because we don’t want to take the treatment.

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    “They’re not trying to kill you by giving you a vaccine. There are people out there who are trying to kill you by giving you misinformation, which will cause you to not take a vaccine.”

    Medical racism
    Yes, medical racism still exists, he acknowledges “but… it’s not that they’re trying to give you something that’s going to harm you, it’s that they are actually denying us treatment. They’re denying us access to resources and we shouldn’t be in a position to deny ourselves effective treatment.”

    Nonetheless, Adams understands why so many remain suspicious of the medical establishment. “I can’t call it anything else but medical racism that has occurred historically, and it is important that we acknowledge that,” he says, “but then we also need to help people understand the protections that are now in place to make sure that never happens again.”

    Yet, regarding COVID-19, the evidence is in, he asserts—the vaccines are safe and beneficial. The vast majority of those hospitalized recently have not been vaccinated. “We know COVID is much more likely to kill you, to cause you harm, to put you in the hospital than this vaccine is,” he says. With more contagious variants, “it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get caught, or get exposed to COVID, it’s when.”

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    Vaccines are a gift from God, he adds. “God gave us the tools that we need to protect ourselves from this virus. It is on us to utilize them… if you have a question, don’t listen to a politician, don’t listen to somebody on Twitter, on Facebook, or Instagram. Listen to your doctor, talk to your doctor and get your questions answered because it’s absolutely OK to have questions, but it’s not OK to let misinformation cause you to make a decision that’s poor for your health.”

    Foreseeing the pandemic being an ongoing issue for some time to come—years, not months, he suspects—his bottom-line advice: “Get the information, get the facts, and hopefully you’ll get the vax.”

    Being healthier
    COVID-19 is a big issue in the Black community because of comorbidity issues—how it works with higher-risk health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and so on. “Being healthier actually helps you fight off COVID, helps you fight off the flu, helps you fight off cancer,” he says.

    This is where health education is so important, he stresses. Of those who won’t get the vaccine because they argue they don’t know what’s in it, he asks about that fast food they may have just eaten, or the joint they may have smoked. Even the supplements they bought at a store.

    “There are lots of things that we put in our bodies every single day that are bad for us, that we don’t know what’s in them,” he counters, “but now, all of a sudden, we don’t want to take a vaccine that’s been studied in millions of people?”

    One example he offers of the simple kind of information that can make a difference is that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually need to give any personal details to get the vaccine—that’s the law.

    Yet he’s aware how some who may be undocumented have been reluctant to get vaccinated “because they’re worried that someone’s going to collect their name and come get their family.”

    Vaccine providers may ask for contact information because they want to be able to follow up with details of a second dose or a boost, but there’s no requirement to divulge that information to get the shot. “We need to understand and unpack the reasons for hesitancy and address them to get people to a place where they can trust the system that, of course, historically, has given them, if we’re going to be honest, ample reasons not to trust them.”

    Tough things
    Black America’s checkered history with the medical establishment is no secret: This year’s Black History Month theme of “Black Health and Wellness” was prompted by the way African Americans have long been underserved by the country’s health care system.

    That longstanding failure is part of the reason Adams accepted the Surgeon General position, serving between 2017 and 2021. The first doctor in his family (an anesthesiologist), with a master’s degree in public health, he felt it was his duty to accept the invitation to be “one of the very few African Americans at the table.” Because, he goes on, “when you are not at the table, you are often on the menu.”

    During his time as Surgeon General, Adams initiated several advisories he hopes will have long-term health benefits. One warned about the dangers of marijuana use among pregnant women and young people.

    Then there was the caution he offered on e-cigarette usage, “knowing that young people are becoming addicted to nicotine all over again, through these e-cigarettes and these vapes.”

    Though his term as Surgeon General is over, Adams continues to care for others—he came direct from the operating room for this interview, and was recently appointed executive director of health equity initiatives at Purdue University.

    For him, it’s all about service, and that caring for others knows no boundaries. As Surgeon General, he had people asking him how he could work for the then-administration. “When called upon, how could you not serve?” he answers. “I feel God calls upon you to do some tough things at times, but some needed things. And I am proud to have been able to serve my country at a difficult time.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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