CHALLENGE GAINES, of the Hill District, gets the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during the Homewood Community Health and Wellness Summit, Aug. 14. UPMC registered nurse Phelicia Goshea administered the shot. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)
by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
Just 35.5 percent of African American adults in Allegheny County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and as the delta variant of the virus has the country on edge, Pittsburgh’s Black community leaders and health officials are practically pleading with Black residents to get the vaccine.
“The vaccine is safe; it has killed large portions of our community, and I think this is the one tool that we have to keep people alive,” said Stephanie Miller, M.D., a family medicine physician at Allegheny Health Network’s Braddock location, in an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Aug. 13. “I don’t want people to roll the dice with COVID and say, ‘I’m going to take my chances’… because COVID will kill you.”
STEPHANIE MILLER, M.D. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)
Urgent push by officials — ‘the vaccine is safe,’ doctors profess
The state of Pennsylvania’s health department tracks demographic data on those who have received the vaccine (partial or full). As of Aug. 13, 55.1 percent of Whites in Allegheny County were fully vaccinated, 20 percentage points higher than the African American number. Governor Tom Wolf announced on Aug. 16 that 64.3 percent of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated, though the state doesn’t have race data on about 10 percent of that number.
In Allegheny County, almost 63 percent of adults of all ethnicities are fully vaccinated. The push is on to make that number increase, for everyone’s benefit.
“There are a lot of people that are trying to meet the community where they are, and share with them that we are concerned about your health and we want you to take the vaccination,” echoed Esther L. Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, during an interview with KDKA Radio host Kevin Battle on Aug. 6.
Bush discussed how the mistrust between the African American community and the medical profession is still palpable, going back to the Tuskegee Experiment, when hundreds of Black men were subjected to a U.S. study of untreated syphilis. But even when penicillin became the treatment for the disease, the Black men were not offered the treatment. Hundreds died over the years, and it wasn’t until almost 40 years after the start of the study that an Associated Press report shed light nationally on the experiment, ending it.
“And so with COVID-19, some of that has absolutely carried over,” Bush said. “But I am extremely pleased of the work the Urban League has been doing to reach out and try to influence people to take a hard look at the fact that they really need to take this COVID-19 vaccine.”
Among other efforts, the Urban League has partnered with Steelers greats Franco Harris and Mel Blount to promote getting the vaccine. The two legends stood at the steps of Central Baptist Church in the Hill District in April, celebrating the opening of a vaccine clinic inside the church. The location reported that it has seen an uptick of people coming in to get the vaccine in recent days, as COVID cases are skyrocketing in Pa. and Allegheny County. For the week beginning Aug. 1, Allegheny County reported 799 confirmed cases. That’s a boatload more than the 85 confirmed cases in the county for the week beginning July 4, or the 176 confirmed cases during the week of July 11. From July 23-29, there were more than 4,000 confirmed cases across the state.
“It’s a difficult situation,” voiced state Rep. Summer Lee, an African American woman whose district includes the Mon Valley. “The reality is that we’re still going up against the confluence of mistrust that the Black community has with the government, the medical industry…and we’re kind of reconciling them at a really inconvenient time. The reality is, we have to address that distrust at the same time as doing a mass mobilization.”
Representative Lee said she had no hesitation about getting the vaccine, especially when Allegheny Health Network brought the vaccine to a free clinic at the Greater Valley Community Space, in Braddock, in April and May. She received both shots there.
“My message is that it’s a vaccine that has been proven to be effective, it is a safe vaccine that is going to save lives. It’s already saving lives, it’s already saving and freeing our community,” Rep. Lee told the Courier. “My suggestion is to absolutely get it, but if you have hesitancy, we’re happy to take our time to talk you through it, we’re (Rep. Lee and other Black local state representatives like Austin Davis, Jake Wheatley and Ed Gainey) happy to go with you, because it’s that important” that African Americans get the vaccine.
Dr. Miller understands the hesitancy that some African Americans have with getting the vaccine. They’ve told her they felt the vaccine was “too new, it was developed way too quickly,” and they were concerned about the long-term side effects. However, Dr. Miller said she explains to patients that the “achiness, low-grade fever, feeling tired…I tell people, that’s your immune system working. People are afraid of that, but the symptoms last 24 hours and it goes away. Some people have a little bit longer (that symptoms persist) but every day, they get better. It’s your immune system learning, ‘This is what COVID is. When I see COVID, I have to be able to go after it.’”
Vaccination clinics are popping up out of the woodwork lately, as the delta variant seems to take no prisoners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the delta variant is more than twice as contagious as other variants and might cause more severe illness than other variants in unvaccinated people.
The CDC acknowledges that a person who is fully vaccinated can still contract COVID, a “breakthrough infection,” as it’s dubbed. However, “the amount of virus produced by delta breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people goes down faster than infections in unvaccinated people. This means fully vaccinated people are likely infectious for less time than unvaccinated people,” the CDC’s website read.
This past weekend, the vaccine was available at the Homewood Community Health and Wellness Summit, and at Braddock’s Community Day celebration. AHN will have the vaccine available at Rep. Wheatley’s Health & Wellness Weekend, Saturday, Aug. 21, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Centre Ave. YMCA, 2621 Centre. The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that the vaccine would be available from Giant Eagle pharmacists for those attending the preseason game against the Detroit Lions, also on Aug. 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Heinz Field. UPMC is providing the vaccine at the McKeesport Family Center, 339 Fifth Ave., second floor, on Aug. 27 from 3 to 5 p.m.; Enon Baptist Church, in the Hill District, 110 Erin St., Aug. 28 from noon to 3 p.m.; Unity Baptist Church, in North Braddock, 531 Jones Ave., Aug. 29 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and at Kingdom Light Ministries International, 6378 Centre Ave., on Aug. 29 from 1 to 3 p.m. Central Baptist Church, 2200 Wylie Ave., is still providing daily COVID vaccines, as well.
The Courier spotted several people taking advantage of the vaccine clinics over the weekend. Challenge Gaines, of the Hill District, had plans on jumping on a plane to Puerto Rico for his upcoming birthday. So, he firmly planted himself in the chair outside at the Homewood Health Summit, Aug. 14, his family recording each moment, as he got his first vaccine dose from UPMC registered nurse Phelicia Goshea.
“Getting the vaccine is a better option than ending up in the hospital sick and unable to breathe with COVID,” Goshea told the Courier afterwards.
SENATOR WILLIAM, 12, gets the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as his mother, Jacinta William, holds his hand. At the same time, Jacinta William’s 15-year-old son, Dia’Mere Jackson, gets the shot, too. UPMC provided the vaccine as part of the Homewood Community Health and Wellness Summit, Aug. 14. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)
And Jacinta William held her 12-year-old son Senator William’s hand as another UPMC registered nurse put the first dose of the COVID vaccine into his left arm at the Homewood Health Summit. Jacinta William’s 15-year-old son, Dia’Mere Jackson, got his first vaccine dose at the same time, too, no mom’s hand needed.
“The numbers are going up and they’re around their friends too much—I don’t want them to be in the hospital,” Jacinta William told the Courier. “It’s my job to keep them safe.”
Jacinta William has been fully vaccinated for months, she said. She wants everyone else to get vaccinated. “Stop being selfish…get it done,” she said. “I don’t want to see my friends and family in the hospital. It’s free. Let’s do it.”