Dr. Michelle Chester administers the COVID-19 vaccine to nurse Sandra Lindsay, the first person to receive the vaccination in the United States. (AP Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

As African-American women continue to break barriers, nurse Sandra Lindsay who works at a hospital in Queens, N.Y., became the first person to take the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. This historic moment was televised, she said, according to the New York Times, in order to “inspire people who look like me.”

Let’s face it, while Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers from the novel coronavirus, many African Americans are hesitant about taking the vaccine. According to a Pew Research article, Blacks are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than Whites because of pre-existing issues, however, less than half of African Americans are comfortable with getting the vaccine, in comparison to Latinos and Whites. 

Some of the hesitation in the Black community surrounding the vaccine roots from instances where African Americans were used in experimentations surrounding vaccines and medicine. For 40 years, beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) legally studied syphilis, through the Tuskegee Experiment, observing, originally, 600 African-American men. The patients were not being treated and actually receiving placebos and minimal relief, although by 1947 penicillin was used to remedy syphilis. By the time a story was leaked in 1972, calling attention to the atrocities of the experiment, 28 participants had died from syphilis, 100 more had passed away from complications, 40 participants had been diagnosed with the disease and 19 children had been born with it. 

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins also has its own shaky history with Black people and experimentation, like in the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were unknowingly used when discovered as the first immortal human cell line. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. According to Hopkins Medicine, the HeLa cells, named after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names, are historic and now used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, viruses, growth of cancer cells, radiation, poisons. Lacks’ cells even played a major role in the development of the polio vaccine. Despite her major contributions to science, Lacks, who died in 1951 at the age of 31, would never know that her cells were used.

Dr. Sherita Hill Golden speaks on the {AFRO} show Chicken Boxx on Dec. 10. (Screenshot)

On the Dec. 10 episode of the AFRO show “Chicken Boxx,” the theme was Black People vs. the Vaccine, with special guest Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine Dr. Sherita Hill Golden.  As is the purpose of “Chicken Boxx,” which airs every Thursday at noon on the AFRO’s Facebook, in a lively, intergenerational and interactive conversation, Dr. Golden worked to dispel myths within the Black community, this time, about the vaccine. 

“Black people will not be used as lab rats,” Dr. Golden told the AFRO.  

The Hopkins chief diversity officer said that Black people voluntarily participated in the vaccination trials.

“Of course as a scientist I want to know how to educate my people. I’ve gone and looked at the two clinical trials of the vaccines currently at the FDA, about 10% of those studies were African American. They all signed a consent form and agreed to participate, so no experimentation from that standpoint. So it’s about 4,000 people in the Pfizer trial and about 3,000 in the Moderna trial so it’s important to know that some of us have volunteered to be a part of those studies.”

Lindsay, 52, volunteered to be the first in the country to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, which was administered by a Black woman, Dr. Michelle Chester, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York on Dec. 14.  The Queens nurse said that she felt relieved and optimistic after receiving the vaccination.

“It is a huge sense of relief for me…and hope,” Lindsay said to the New York Times.

Dr. Golden explained that she trusts N.I.H.’s  Director of Infection Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, the FDA and her own research when it comes to taking the disease, and is confident that the side effects will be normal and comparable to those experienced when taking a flu shot.

“Like any vaccine, there are side effects. Like the flu shot: when you get it, your arm is sore for a couple days, or you feel achy. That happens with the regular flu shot, fatigue, fever, but that will go away in about 48 hours. It’s just the natural immune response to it. For the COVID-19 shot, there are two shots, it’s not one shot, like the flu is. It’s not so much that you’re getting sick, it’s that your body is developing your immune response, so that’s what you’re feeling,” Golden explained.

The doctor explained that while the COVID-19 vaccine may sound scary and bring back hard memories of racism against Black bodies, Africans Americans must consider the benefit in arming themselves against the novel coronavirus. 

“We have to realize as Black people, we also get sick from the coronavirus and we’re dying so we have to weigh the benefits here,” Golden said.

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor