Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath Talks Vaccine Rollout Among Black Americans

As millions get their stimulus checks from the American Rescue Plan, and the White House pledges to ramp up vaccine distribution around the nation, Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath spoke to the Black Information Network about what this means for Black Americans. 

“We’re at the dawn of a bright new day,” Dr. McMurry-Health said, “It has been a long and dark night and we have made it through thus far together, but there is a lot of work still to go.” McMurry-Heath is a Harvard-educated medical doctor and trained immunologist who has worked as an executive at Johnson & Johnson.

Early survey data indicated hesitancy among African American adults in getting the vaccine, and vaccine distribution numbers show a lag in vaccination rates among Black people in the US. Part of this delay has been attributed to inadequate access to Black communities, as well as acknowledgement of the medical field’s history of racism and ongoing bias in treating Black patients. Dr. McMurry-Heath detailed how her work has overlapped with her getting information to her own family.  

“As a Black physician who has family roots that are deep and wide in Oakland, California, I am on the phone with my family pretty much monthly giving them updates on the vaccines, telling them what I see from the frontlines.” 

Dr. McMurry-Heath currently serves as President and CEO of Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) which launched a website, COVIDVaccineFacts.org, to get credible, easy-to-understand information about the available coronavirus vaccines to people, especially those at higher risk. 

To address the widespread concern and hesitancy to getting the vaccine, Dr. McMurry-Heath noted that the new COVID-19 relief bill included funding for advertising, mobile clinics, and easier-to-use vaccine appointment systems. “Let’s face it,” she said, “Part of it has been a question of ‘Do people have confidence in the vaccine?’ and part of it has been the difficulty in navigating finding the vaccine once you decide you want it.”

The reported side effects have also raised alarm for some weighing the decision to get vaccinated. Dr. McMurry-Heath says that shouldn’t be a deterrent. “I understand how [concern about side effects] could be, but it shouldn’t be,” she said. “The flip side of these mild side effects that in most cases seem to resolve in two to three days… those are known and defined and manageable, as opposed to Covid, which is posing such a great risk, particularly to our communities.”

“The vaccine side effects are really a sign that it’s working,” she explained. “It’s a sign that your immune system is turning on. Those side effects, she said, will help the body be prepared if it comes in contact with the coronavirus and protect against severe disease.

Dr. McMurry-Heath said the three vaccines available for use have gone through “a rigorous study” and were developed under “an unprecedented level of scrutiny.” “When it is your turn, raise your hand,” she said. “This is a powerful tool of medical science to protect us,” she added, “and we really want everyone who does have the opportunity to take the vaccine to have it.”

“Every vaccinated individual is also not only protecting themselves, but they are protecting their communities,” Dr. McMurry-Heath said. The vaccines are also “cutting down the transmission” of emerging COVID-19 variants, which is key to stopping slowing the pandemic. 

With cases on the rise in more than a dozen states across the US, health experts are pointing to speedy vaccine distribution and maintaining CDC guidelines like mask wearing and hand washing as keys to helping lower the rates of the virus. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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