Fighting COVID-19 in Our Communities

By Dr. Robert L. Johnson

It’s no secret that Black Americans are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, the tragic reality is that SARS-CoV-2, known more commonly as the novel coronavirus, is making us ill and killing us at alarmingly higher rates than our white peers. I understand the rightly placed distrust our community has in the medical profession because of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis and other unethical experiments and mistreatment.

As the dean of Rutgers University’s New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) in Newark and interim dean of its Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) in New Brunswick, I know the vaccine is an enormous step in the right direction as we continue to battle the devastating impact of COVID-19 in our communities. Collectively, we’ve mourned. We’re mourning the loss of our loved ones. We’re mourning the loss of our prepandemic way of life. And while nothing can bring back our friends, family, and full sense of normalcy, the vaccine will allow us to stem the spread of this virus and help keep one another safe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are 1.4 times more likely to be infected by the virus, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8 times more likely to die from Covid 19.

The statistics are staggering, in large part, because many of us are essential and front-line workers – nurses and nurse’s aides, hospital orderlies, service workers – who put our lives on the line every day in jobs that place us at the greatest risk. The data only tells one part of the story. No chart, graph, or statistic can truly represent the deeply personal toll this pandemic has taken on our families.

To lessen the damage to our communities, it’s imperative that we seriously consider getting the vaccine. As a practicing physician working in Newark, I have had direct experience with patients who have contracted the deadly virus.

I was the second person in the state of New Jersey to receive the Pfizer vaccine. I did not hesitate to get the vaccine, and even though I’m a septuagenarian, I had no adverse effects. While it’s true some people will experience some minor discomfort such as slight pain and swelling at the injection site and a low-grade fever, of the more than 10 million Americans who have been vaccinated to date, there have been no reports of patients experiencing longterm serious effects.

People often ask me whether they can get the vaccine even if they have pre-existing medical conditions; the answer is an unqualified yes. Advanced age also is not a factor. Currently, there are two vaccines available in the United States – Moderna and Pfizer – and their effectiveness is ranked at 94 to 95 percent, which puts them far ahead of the flu vaccine, which only reaches the 60s. More are in development and will be available soon.

It’s important to note these vaccines are based on solid research and were tested in tens of thousands of people during clinical trials, including ones that took place at NJMS and RWJMS. These clinical trials showed there was no higher risk to people from any one ethnic or racial or age group.

Indeed, the only people who have shown increased risk are those who are allergic to some of the specific components of the vaccine. But this number is minute, and each person’s medical history is discussed before the vaccine is given. Although these vaccines are new, they have a dependable track record: versions were used to treat people who contracted the Ebola virus in the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa. The COVID-19 vaccines represent a new, safe way to fight deadly diseases.