Philly doctor says gaining trust of Black community essential when COVID-19 vaccine goes public

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- COVID-19 is sending Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans to the hospital at a rate about four times higher than other people in this country. So, when the vaccine makes its way into the general population in 2021, it will be of critical importance for those groups to get the shot.

With that comes a problem: A poll out this week from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds more than one-third of Black Americans would probably not or definitely not get the vaccine, even though it's been called safe and it's available free of charge.

Dr. Ala Stanford, leader of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in Philadelphia, joined KYW Newsradio on Wednesday morning to talk about how to combat distrust of vaccines in communities of color. She says it comes down to listening.

"You gotta listen to the folks," Stanford said. "You can't convince. You can't coerce. You need to listen to what their fears are and then educate them ... about the facts, what we know about the vaccine, and ask them a simple question: Is it safer for you to get coronavirus, or is it safer for you to take the coronavirus vaccine?"

She said she has been having those conversations for the last week. Even some members of her own staff are concerned about the effects of the vaccine on pregnancy, or wonder about allergic reactions, or simply distrust something injected into their bodies.

"And I found that after you listen to people, and you talk about their fears, that most of them really want the vaccine," she said.

Stanford says those conversations are time consuming, but they are poignant and effective.

"We went from maybe 20% wanting to take the vaccine, and now we're closer to 50%. And I think a lot of that will change," she said.

Stanford said she herself was not planning to receive the vaccine, because she has already recovered from COVID-19 and she had antibodies to the coronavirus.

"But what I found is that all people were hearing is 'Dr. Sanford's not taking it. She's not taking the vaccine, so I'm not taking it,'" she said.

And in that moment, she said, she realized that she needed to lead by example.

So on Wednesday afternoon, Stanford got the vaccine on camera along with more than a dozen doctors, nurses and medical staff working with the organization.

“I decided to take one for the team. This was less about my individual decision and more about what the community needed. In West Philly this Saturday, no less than 100 people said to me, ‘Doc, when you tell me it’s alright to get it, then I’m going to get it. If you tell me, I’ll roll up my sleeve.’ That sat with me for a while and I prayed about it a lot," she said.

Staggering the vaccinations will help her to make sure that her staff are available to continue testing hundreds of people a day as case counts surge in the region.

Stanford, a pediatric surgeon with a practice in Jenkintown, galvanized people in Philadelphia last spring and gained the trust of the community to get more than 20,000 people in southeastern Pennsylvania and Camden, N.J., tested for the virus.

And she says, because it could be a full year before everyone gets vaccinated, the two most important things are still testing and contact tracing. So, the coalition is still working in Philadelphia and Montgomery County ZIP codes where the positivity rate is highest.

"We plan to be around as long as the city needs us," she said.

And in the meantime, she stressed, wearing masks, distancing and avoiding small social gatherings are still critical public health measures.

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