By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Johns Hopkins University put COVID-19 vaccinations and mental health under the microscope this week during the youth forum, Disruptivate: COVID-19, hosted in conjunction with Usher’s New Look, Hip Hop Public Health, and Dew More Baltimore. 

More than 120 students from around the country gathered virtually to talk about the challenges they have faced during the coronavirus pandemic and their concerns about vaccination.

“There are so many other things you can do to help stop COVID. You don’t have to be a doctor,” said Watson Whitford, a 15-year old resident of the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana. “You can spread information and help people protect themselves.”

Whitford grew concerned about the elders in his community when the pandemic began to ravage the country last Spring. He knew he had to take action when the virus made its way onto the reservation. 

Whitford contacted Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to find out how he could help his community of roughly 4,000 indigenous peoples. 

“It was nerve wracking because we have elders that are our knowledge keepers. Our traditions are passed down orally. There are no books. There are no recordings,” Whitford told the AFRO. “They have our language and the knowledge that will take us into the future. It was important for me to protect them and everyone else.” 

Whitford worked with Galiatsatos to bring resources to his community, where he says an intense vaccination debate is taking place.

“There is a big conflict among indigenous people,” said the 15-year old. “We have our own herbal remedies and it’s hard for the Native American population to trust the government and science. In the past, we’ve been experimented on and they sterilized our women. A lot of people are worried that something like that will happen again.”

Though Whitford believes it is important to acknowledge the injustice of the past, he says it’s important to remember the progress that has been made in science and healthcare. 

“We have our own herbal remedies and medicines that we use, but we have to have that trust in our doctors,” he said. “We live in a modern world and we have to live with a balance. We have to trust both.” 

Fear of the vaccine was an important topic for Dr. Frank Jones, clinical professor of surgery at the Georgia campus of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and an adjunct associate professor of surgery at Morehouse School of Medicine. 

“You have to allow people to acknowledge why they have fears about the vaccine,” he said. “We have to allow people to be afraid and we have to be able to dispel rumors.”

Jones said African Americans shouldn’t be hesitant to take the vaccine or participate in trials that could help develop cures of the future. 

It’s very important as a community that we participate in those trials so that when medicines come out they have been tested in our communities.”

In addition to youth and healthcare professionals from around the country, stars of the Netflix series “Family Reunion,” weighed in on how the pandemic has affected their lives. 

“We were thrilled to be involved because COVID-19 has hit people hard- particularly people of color and children,” said Meg Deloatch, “Family Reunion” creator and showrunner. “It’s proven that kids tend to listen and be more interested when other children are speaking. I think it’s good for kids to be honest about their struggles.” 

“When kids are high profile there is a perception that maybe they’re different or don’t have the same struggle. It’s a wonderful way for my cast to be transparent.” 

The atmosphere was kept light with Kahoot, a virtual platform where individuals can compete in user-generated multiple-choice quizzes via smartphone, tablet, or computer. COVID-19 was the topic and participants tried to beat the clock and each other in a test on social distancing, vaccinations and proper personal protective equipment. 

Leaders in the medical profession also imparted their advice on how to empower youth as public health advocates.

Primary prevention is the goal and that starts with education and having a united front in our communities to fight this particular threat,” said Dr. Monique Hedmann-Maxey, resident physician in the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center Department of Family Medicine. “There are a lot of conspiracy theories being circulated and that’s part of the reason people are resistant.” 

When Hedmann-Maxey isn’t saving lives, she uses her love of hip-hop and medical expertise to deliver public health information via Hip Hop Public Health. 

“Hip hop has always been a powerful force and a voice of the people to address the unique challenges we face,” she said. “We want to harness the power of this cultural force to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Galiatsatos said that training the next generation will include “teaching students not just about COVID, but giving an understanding of science literacy and the ability to take science and disseminate it in the community.”

There is nothing more powerful than youth. Youth movements have rocked this world dating back thousands of years,” said Galiatsatos. “When we put this together we thought ‘we’ll be in five schools.’ Because of what you all were able to do we’re in 28 states and eight countries.”

Johns Hopkins University has been working with youth since last summer through Usher’s New Look, a non-profit started by the celebrity. Programming has included training on how to combat misinformation about COVID-19 and properly protect against transmission of the virus. 

“Young people are still trying to figure out how to cope and they are trying to figure out the vaccine. We wanted to provide relevant and accurate information so young people and adults could make better decisions for themselves,” said Alicia Wilson, vice president for economic development for Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System. “We wanted them to be ambassadors to their community and their friendship circle.”

Students have been learning not only how to disrupt the pandemic, but also how to deal with mental health questions like “When is the point that you need to seek help for the feelings that you have?” or “When has your sadness gone past a state of sadness and into depression?”

Wilson said the program is “measuring success by the amount of young people willingly taking up the mantle of being students as well as teachers.” 

“We count it a privilege that we are able to partner with young people from across the nation to provide vitally important information.”

For more information on Usher’s New Look, please visit

Check out the sights and sounds of Hip Hop Public Health at