By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
For over a year now our country has been struggling with a once-in-a-century pandemic. It has been a heavy burden for us to carry. We have watched as loved ones were taken from us. We have lived in fear that we, or someone else we cared for, would be the next person to contract the virus and perhaps succumb to it. Our lives have been upended, as we made many sacrifices in order to slow the spread, flatten the curve, or whatever other strategy was being employed in order to keep us as safe as possible.
I know the toll that this has taken on the families of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District and beyond. I have spoken to people who have buried family members or gone to the funeral of a long-time friend. I have watched the enormous impact that this has had on healthcare workers on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. And I have seen the heartbreak of young people who spent years looking forward to days that ultimately did not come for them: graduations, proms, sweet-sixteens, chess clubs, academics contests, sports contests, and more.
We must be clear about what will and will not work in bringing this pandemic to a close. The virus will not disappear on its own. Misplaced narratives about individualism and taking personal responsibility will not make it go away either.
This virus is a problem that we face collectively, and it will only be defeated by a collective effort from all of us. For the past year that has meant wearing a mask, social distancing, and good hand hygiene. Eventually we would like to get back to some semblance of normal. And we finally have a way to do that. It will require as many individuals as possible taking the opportunity to protect themselves, as well as others. I am speaking about vaccination.
The only scientifically proven way we can end this pandemic is to vaccinate our way out of it. Widespread delivery of the various COVID vaccines will bring the virus under control. Very few people who are vaccinated will contract the virus. Even among those who do, their symptoms are likely to be far milder than they otherwise would be. Moreover, the more people who are vaccinated from the virus, the fewer people there are to potentially pass it along to others. Building herd immunity will finally allow us to prevent community spread of COVID-19.
There has been a great deal of misinformation spread about the COVID vaccines. Some people are scared to take them, while others do not believe that they work. Let’s set the record straight about these misconceptions. Before any vaccine can be approved for use, it must be proven to be safe and effective. The COVID vaccines are no exception to this policy. Like all vaccines they went through clinical trials which demonstrated that they safely and dramatically reduced the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
COVID vaccines teach our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC has explained how all three vaccines operate. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines operate based on mRNA technology. The Johnson & Johnson brand is a vector vaccine. All of them work to defeat the virus by prompting our bodies to build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight the virus if we are infected in the future.
I understand why many people, especially in the African-American community, have feelings of skepticism. The legacy of the “Tuskegee Experiment” looms large in the minds of many. The United States government did a reprehensible thing to many African-American men. These men were promised free health care, but instead were infected with a deadly disease and sent back to our community to spread it. They were never told of their diagnosis, they were denied treatment, given placebos and the government even refused to provide them with penicillin. This has led to widespread distrust of government promises when it comes to claims that they will protect people from infections and viruses.
What happened with the Tuskegee Experiment cannot be undone. What we can do, however, is not allow any further victims to be claimed by these reprehensible actions. It is imperative that we not mix the shameful actions there with our current situation. The COVID-19 vaccination program has adhered to the strictest ethical guidelines at every stage of its advancement. It moved forward in accordance with the most important principle of medicine: first do no harm. By contrast, the community spread of this coronavirus has done indescribable harm to our nation. In 2020 the death rate increased by 16 percent over the previous year, a number that is even higher if you exclusively look at the final 9 months of 2020 when COVID-19 began to explode upon our society. Altogether we have lost 572,000 Americans to COVID … and counting.
This vaccination drive that is currently taking place across America represents an opportunity to get out from under this pandemic. It gives us the ability to get back to some semblance of our old lives. Most importantly, it will protect us from continuing to suffer the devastating levels of fatality that we have experienced over the past year. We should all do our part to end the pandemic by getting vaccinated. It is my hope that everyone will take advantage of the opportunity to keep themselves and their neighbors safe. I understand the urgent need for this program to work, which is why earlier this year I did the most important thing that any lawmaker or leader can do in order to contribute to its success: I got vaccinated too.
Kweisi Mfume represents the 7th Congressional District of Maryland.