TSD freelance contributor Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell is participating in a local COVID-19 vaccine trial and sharing the experience with readers.

It made perfect sense to me. With COVID-19, African Americans have had higher infection rates, hospitalization rates and death rates. In fact, according to a recent report from the Shelby County Health Department, 59 percent of coronavirus deaths in Shelby County are African Americans.

Vaccines from Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna, both approved by the Food and Drug Administration, are already protecting millions of healthcare personnel in America. The potential is there to save lives. However, many African Americans harbor a strong distrust of the healthcare system, and are raising questions.

They are not alone.

Recent Gallup polling has found that the public in general has lost confidence in almost all major institutions in the United States, including Congress and the news media. The most dramatic decline, however, has occurred in confidence in the medical system, which fell by more than 50 percent-from 80 percent in 1975 to 35 percent in 2019.

Therein lies the problem.

Whichever vaccine is administered, medical professionals agree that at least 70 percent of the population must be vaccinated to protect everyone.

“We actually need 70-75 percent of the population to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of the Shelby County Health Department. “Then, you can start talking about this herd immunity. If 75 percent is vaccinated, the remaining 25 percent is protected so that the virus is not being transmitted.”

However, many of the skeptics say they will take a wait-and-see approach, and some say they’ll simply refuse to take it.

Which brings me to the point of this story.

There is a third potential vaccine by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. A trial study is the last big hurdle before FDA review. Researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science are facilitating the trial at St. Jude.

The trial study’s lead investigator, Dr. Aditya Gaur, understands that communities of color have extreme trust issues of medical institutions. He expressed that sentiment when I called in early December to express interest in participating.

“Oh, so you are a journalist, and you want to participate in our trial study,” Dr. Gaur asked. “That’s great. I think that would help us so much. We have a messaging problem in the Black community as well as other minority communities. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about how we improve our messaging.”

Since the days of slavery, White physicians and institutions have conducted horrific, inhumane experiments on African-Americans. 

Perhaps, the most infamous is the Tuskegee Experiment, conducted from 1932-72, 600 sharecroppers in Macon County signed up to receive free medical treatment: 399 with latent syphilis and 201 in the control group. The study was set up to observe the stages of untreated syphilis. Those with the disease were allowed to suffer and die.

“The Tuskegee Experiment was highly unethical,” said Randolph. “No research should ever be done without consent. And once penicillin was designated as being effective in treating syphilis, those men with the disease were denied treatment. That went on for 50 years – shameful.”

Even with that historical perspective, I still felt participating in this trial and sharing the experience with readers of The New Tri-State Defender (TSD) was a good idea. My editor was hesitant, telling me that the TSD could not and would not ask that I participate in the vaccine trial.

Determined, I pushed forward. I made an appointment, pre-qualified for the trial and went in on Dec. 14, a Monday. We want vaccines to be effective in all populations, but it’s especially important that African Americans are protected and part of the research study. Our transmission numbers and fatality rate from coronavirus continue to be high.

I answered some medical questions, signed some papers and was officially accepted into the study trial.

It was explained to me that the trial was a “double-blind” study. That means that some participants will actually receive the vaccine, and others would receive a placebo, which is an injection with no therapeutic benefits. The methodology is used as a control. Neither the participant nor the physicians know which was administered to whom. Both are in the dark, thus, a “double-blind” study.

Placebo or vaccine, that needle was big. I concentrated on not crying or passing out. (After all, I’m not six anymore, just felt that way.)

I took the shot, and 15 days out, I feel great. I report on an app how I feel and whether or not I am exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19. Had I experienced any symptoms, I would have been asked another set of questions on the app and returned to the doctors for observation and treatment.

I told Dr. Randolph Monday night in a phone conversation the trial has been uneventful for me. He thought it was great that I did so well. But he continues to be concerned about gaining the trust of Shelby County’s African-American population so that the quality of healthcare improves for all.

“There are three types of people,” Randolph said. “There are those who want the vaccine right off, a second group that wants to wait and see what happens to the first, and the third group, which refuses to be vaccinated altogether. We’re hoping most fall into the first two groups.”

It’s early in the trial, but I am doing fine. Go ahead and get the vaccine of your choice. Encourage friends and neighbors to do the same. Let’s commit in great numbers as if our very lives depended on it – because they really do.