When Anita Jenkins sat down to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, she was sending a clear message to her staff.
The CEO of Howard University Hospital, a major health care provider for the African American community in Washington, DC, was well aware that her employees and staff had reservations about the vaccine. And that notion frightened her.
An internal hospital survey of about 350 employees in early November found that 70% were not willing to take the vaccine or would not take it immediately after it became available.
Even her own leadership team was hesitant. “I’ll take it if you take it,” some members told her.
“I said, ‘I will gladly take it first,’” Jenkins told CNN.
So Jenkins received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on December 15 before cameras to instill confidence in the vaccine among her staff, becoming the latest high-profile health care professional to take such a step.
Alleviating her employees’ fears has been a slow process, but Jenkins said she’s optimistic.
Howard University Hospital received 725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in its first shipment, with more vaccines expected this week. To date, the hospital said more than 350 staffers have received the vaccine out of the nearly 2,300 employees, residents and contractors who work there.
The numbers, while still low, exceeded expectations, Jenkins said. She added that the hospital expects to run out of its initial 725 doses “well ahead of schedule.”
Building up trust has been a slow process
Jenkins’ move is part of a widespread effort by community leaders and health care experts to combat vaccine hesitancy among Black and Latino Americans – a particularly pressing problem given the disproportionate toll that the virus has taken on those communities.
A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35% of Black Americans would probably or definitely not get the vaccine if it was determined to be safe by scientists and widely available for free.
Of those people, the majority said they were concerned about possible side effects; half were worried they would get Covid-19 from taking the vaccine; and 48% said they have a general distrust in vaccines.
Communities of color have “every right to be nervous,” Jenkins said.
There is a long legacy of systemic racism in health care and medicine – notably the Tuskegee Experiment, in which researchers tracked the progression of syphilis over several decades in hundreds of Black men by not treating them as they died or suffered severe health issues.
But the Covid-19 vaccine is different, Jenkins said, noting that thousands of Black people had been involved in clinical trials.
“This is not an American experiment on Black people,” Jenkins said. “This is a worldwide pandemic with a worldwide vaccine as a solution to the thousands of deaths.”
Since learning that so many staffers at Howard University Hospital did not yet feel comfortable taking the vaccine, Jenkins said she and her team have been putting out Q&As to address people’s concerns.
She has also been personally answering questions from employees: Could they possibly get Covid-19 from the vaccine? What were the side effects? Was it safe for pregnant women? What about nursing mothers? What about those who were trying to get pregnant?
“I felt personally responsible to help people through not just misunderstandings, but misinformation, and to help them through their fears,” Jenkins said.
The messages have continued even after she took the vaccine: Is she experiencing any side effects? (Nothing besides a sore arm the first day.) What about 48 hours later? (Still feeling good.) What about a week later? (Doing just fine).
That so many Black and brown people – even those she’s never met – are coming to her with their fears and concerns has been humbling, Jenkins said. And it’s a reminder of just how important it is for experts and professionals who look like the communities they serve to take the vaccine.
“I hope they trust us more because we can relate,” Jenkins said. “I hope that they see us as one of them.”
Other Black leaders have done the same
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice recently sent a similar message to Black Americans.
The dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine took her first Covid-19 vaccine shot last week on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Rice, too, empathized with some Black Americans’ concerns over the nation’s history of racism in medicine. But she insisted that she wouldn’t recommend a vaccine she didn’t trust.
Black scientists and doctors helped develop the vaccine and sat on the advisory boards of the federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rice noted. Black people are also looking at the data, she added.
“We are in the rooms where it’s happening,” Rice said. “So we clearly are not going to go against ourselves. Because we understand how critical this is for Black America and Latinx America who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.”
Morehouse is among the historically Black colleges and universities, Black sororities and fraternities and prominent Black pastors who are leading national efforts to remove the stigma around the Covid-19 vaccine.
Other cornerstones in Black communities, like barbershops and hair salons, have also been playing a key role in the conversation. Stephen Thomas, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland in College Park, is hosting Zoom town halls where doctors and scientists teach Maryland-based barbers, stylists and their clients about the vaccine.
The effort is part of Thomas’ initiative Health Advocates In-Reach and Research, or HAIR, that provides cancer screenings at barbershops and hair salons.
“The barbers and the stylists have trust,” Thomas said. “It’s a big deal, it’s a family affair. It’s a place where Black people come together across all their socioeconomic divisions.”
CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis contributed to this report.