As the chair of the OB-GYN Department at UPMC Lititz, Dr. Sharee Livingston was among the first UPMC frontline workers to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Rolling up her sleeve to receive the vaccine, though, represented much more than being a frontline worker getting inoculated against the novel coronavirus.
For Livingston, receiving the vaccine was a show of confidence.
“I do think it’s important for people of color to see other people of color receive the vaccine,” said Livingston, who also is a diversity, inclusion, and health equity officer for UPMC.
Universal buy-in will be critical for achieving herd immunity.
“We can create a vaccine, but if you’re not administering vaccine you’re not getting herd immunity,” Livingston said.
Herd immunity is achieved when enough of the public is immune — either through prior illness or vaccination — to provide little opportunity for a disease to spread.
While impossible to know with certainty the threshold needed to reach it, the nation’s senior official for infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said COVID-19 may require immunity close to 90% of the population to halt the virus.
That could be a heavy lift.
Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, which has supplanted heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States. Blacks and Latinx have the highest COVID morbidity and mortality rates in the U.S., the likely result of social determinants of health, generally recognized as the environmental conditions where people live, work and play.
The mortality rate for Blacks in Pennsylvania from June 9 through Dec. 8 was 137.5 per 100,000, according to St. Paul Minn.-based APM Research Lab, which conducts original research and analysis.
For whites the mortality rate was 80, Latinx 57.8 and Asians 50.
In Lancaster County, Blacks account for roughly 2% of all COVID fatalities while Latinx comprise about 5% of the deaths, according to data compiled by the Lancaster County Coroner’s Office. Both percentages are below their representation in the community.
“It’s racism, not race, that puts us at a disproportionate disadvantage for the coronavirus,” Livingston said.
While vaccination is considered a crucial strategy for ending the pandemic, those most susceptible might be least likely to get it. Only 14% of Blacks and 34% of Latinx reported trust in the safety of the vaccine, according to a survey released last month and conducted in part by the NAACP.
Earlier this month, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, a Pew Research Center survey found 60% of Americans would definitely or probably get a vaccine, up from 51% in September.
But Black Americans stand out for their vaccine reluctance with only 42% saying they would get the vaccine.
The mistrust runs deep.
“It’s not just the Tuskegee experiments of old,” said Livingston, referring to a syphilis study of Black males conducted by the federal government from 1932 to 1972.
To track the full progression of the disease, researchers did not provide effective care, which lead Black participants to experience severe health problems that included blindness, mental impairment and death.
‘We don’t have time for second guessing’ death.
Livingston is not alone in her efforts.
Black Doctors Covid Consortium, an initiative of It Takes Philly, is also working to reduce in the incidence of COVID disease and death. The group’s efforts include mobile testing in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
And Black Clergy of Philadelphia is encouraging people to wear face masks, practice social distancing and good hand hygiene to stop the spread.
Reaching communities of color — particularly the Black community — is on the radar of local health care providers.
In a column published in LNP | LancasterOnline on Sunday, health care officials with Lancaster Health Center wrote that the distrust of the medical community is understandable, given longstanding racism and the “mistreatment of African Americans in the name of science.”
Janet Barngetuny, Lancaster Health Center’s director of pharmacy and one of the column writers, told LNP | LancasterOnline that communities of color need time to build vaccination acceptance.
“Many people in the community are experiencing skepticism and confusion on the vaccine and the development process,” Barngetuny wrote in an email. “The strategy will need to be individualized to be effective.”
WellSpan Health — which operates eight hospitals across Pennsylvania, including WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital in Ephrata Borough — is also “making these efforts,” but in a less formal way, said Ryan Coyle, a company spokesman.
MaryAnn Eckard, a Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital spokeswoman, did not respond to LNP | LancasterOnline inquiry.
Meeting people where they’re at could be a crucial step toward instilling confidence, Livingston said.
Shortly after getting the vaccine, Livingston was in a church service, sharing with the congregation the vaccination side effects she experienced: “euphoria and hope.”
A 93-year-old Black woman, who had not planned on getting inoculated against COVID-19, told Livingston she would get vaccinated after hearing her speak. Finding individuals with whom the community can trust, she said, is key.
“We don’t have time for second guessing,” Livingston said. “We’re disproportionately impacted and we’re dying.”