Former then President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force and current White House COVID-19 Response Senior Advisor Dr. Marcella Nunez- Smith emphasized that vaccinations are still the best way to protect from COVID-19 related hospitalizations and fatalities. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor

After serving as the chair for then President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force and now as a White House COVID-19 Response Senior Advisor, Dr. Marcella Nunez- Smith still sticks by the fact that vaccinations are the best way to get past the pandemic.

“As the President said, it’s going to be a multi-pronged strategy to combat COVID and certainly the vaccines and the vaccinations, that’s the best tool we have in the toolbox to get us to the other side of the pandemic. It really is,” Nunez-Smith said in a one on one with the AFRO.  “When you look around and you see who’s in the hospital now, sadly, who is losing their lives now, because of COVID, it’s overwhelmingly people who are unvaccinated, and so the top priority is to help meet people where they are and say, ‘If you’re not vaccinated yet, it’s not too late. Delta is still here. There is urgency to this and to protect yourself and your family numbers.’”

While she is very aware of the concerns and hesitations present in the African-American community, the doctor and White House senior advisor was complimentary of the work being done in the U.S. and communities of color to stop the spread of COVID and getting the vaccine.  According to a report submitted to the AFRO from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the White House, 72% of American adults and 70% of Black Americans are at least partially vaccinated.  Nunez-Smith explained that setting examples in the Black community is key in ensuring that more people get vaccinated.

“So many people in our community are vaccinated, have stepped up, have done the vaccine,” Nunez-Smith said. “We are ambassadors for other people and that is so important.  Folks want to hear from people they trust. We often are saying don’t take things from social media, talk to your healthcare provider, but talk to the people in your network, community who have gotten vaccinated themselves and listen to their testimonials. Every moment we spend in that conversation is worth it because every life is worth it.”

However, the vaccination conversation doesn’t end after the second dose of Pfizer and Moderna or after the single dose of Johnson & Johnson, as now boosters are being suggested as a continued means of protection from the fatal effects of COVID-19, causing pause for concern for some Black Americans.

“I mean even in my own family people have reached out and said, ‘Oh wait a minute.  How many shots is this going to be ultimately?’ And I say, listen, ‘We’ve got to work with the facts we have now,” Nunez-Smith said. “We know that if you’re vaccinated now,” she continued, “the reality is that the vaccines are working very well against severe illness, against hospitalizations, against death.”

Admittedly, Nunez-Smith said there is still a lot that doctors and leaders are unsure about when it comes to COVID-19, its variants, and the vaccinations, but she emphasized to focus on what the science proves now.

“I just want everybody to join in this space of, let’s work with what we do know. What we do know is vaccination protects and that is really critical. They’re safe, hundreds of millions of doses were safely given, and they are effective,” she said.

“So, what happens with boosters?  Right now in the country, for those who got Pfizer vaccines six months ago or more, they are eligible now to get a third shot to provide additional protection if they’re over 65, if they’re an adult with a chronic condition that puts you at high risk, that’s millions of people, and if you are in a work or living situation that puts you at risk, that’s a lot of frontline workers, essential workers, people who live in group homes, homeless shelters, prisons and incarceration settings. So, that’s where we are,” Nunez-Smith explained.

As of now, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has only approved those with the Pfizer vaccination eligible for booster shots, leaving those with Moderna and Johnson and Johnson shots with questions. 

“The FDA is really awaiting information from Moderna, as well as Johnson & Johnson. They’ll go through this similar process again with their advisors, with the FDA making a final decision on safety and efficacy, with the CDC advisors making decisions for whom it is recommended, the CDC making that decision,” said the White House Senior Advisor.

Nunez-Smith said she encourages people who took the Moderna or Johnson and Johnson vaccinations to wait until their brand is approved before switching to another booster.

“If you have Moderna, if you had Johnson and Johnson and you’re waiting on the question on boosters, everybody is working around the clock to get that answer to do this in the right way, but we know time is important, but wait for that.  We are trying to discourage people from making their own choices when it comes to this,” she said, before also explaining the same applies to children in age groups unapproved by the CDC.

In a White House press briefing on Sept. 28, Nunez- Smith and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky discussed the safety of the Pfizer booster.

“Both the FDA and CDC reviewed data on the safety of booster shots, including for those 18 to 64.  Today we are releasing a new publication on the MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) that shows that COVID-19 vaccine booster doses so far are well tolerated.  This report includes some of the data of our early experience with third doses that FDA and CDC reviewed when they made their recommendations about boosters,” Walensky said.

Overall, Nunez-Smith said that the U.S. has made major strides in vaccinating citizens and closing the race gap when it comes to access to COVID vaccinations.

“That’s the result of intentional work to address the concerns,” Nunez- Smith said in response to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s new report and higher statistics on COVID vaccinations. “We’ve made important progress in increasing vaccination rates and vaccination inequities.”

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor