INTERVIEW: A Black Health Worker Gets Vaccinated to Inspire Her Community
Black activist and health worker Tierra Rich opens up about her vaccination experience in Philadelphia: “I feel like I jumped out there for a lot of y’all."
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FYI, today’s newsletter features an interview by guest contributor Andrea Plaid.
Last December, 62 percent of African Americans said they would “probably or definitely” get the vaccine, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. And yet, until recently, a majority of news articles reported that most Black people would reject any COVID-19 vaccinations because of their mistrust of the medical system, repeatedly citing the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.
Almost one year and two vaccines later, a new — albeit less abundant — batch of reports have not only confirmed that Black communities are, in fact, interested in getting vaccinated, but also revealed racial inequities in the vaccine rollout and access that have led to disproportionate vaccination rates. Fifty-five percent of the CDC’s vaccination data accounts for ethnicity and data, and of that portion:
nearly two thirds were white (63%),
9% were Hispanic,
6% were Black,
5% were Asian,
2% were American Indian or Alaska Native, and
<1% were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander,
while nearly 14% reported multiple or other race. [KFF]
The reasons for this overwhelming disparity among the Black community spans from lack of internet access to register online for vaccinations, to “pharmacy deserts” and hospital closures, to targeted misinformation and anti-vaccination campaigns social media campaigns, explained Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. ProPublica and CNN have also reported on majority-Black counties in Tennessee and Alabama where the age eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations—75 years or older—is at odds with the disproportionately low life expectancy of Black Americans (a recent study predicted that, because of COVID-19, Black people will die 2.10 years sooner, at 72.78 years.)
Each of these barriers stems from the same systemic and institutional racism that spurred the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 illness and deaths in the Black community, highlighting the larger consequences of inequities. And just as Black medical professionals, health advocates, and community organizers have fought to keep these vulnerable communities safe from the coronavirus through testing and treatment, they are also rallying to lead the charge for preventative care through inspiring confidence about the vaccine and making them more accessible to all.
Tierra Rich is one of these fighters. An activist and health resource coordinator in West Philadelphia, she received her first Pfizer shot on Christmas Eve and her second one in January. Journalist Andrea Plaid first learned about Rich through “Sharing my Covid-19 Vaccination Journey,” a Facebook Live video in which the activist debunks myths while walking viewers through her own vaccination day that December.
“I feel like I jumped out there for a lot of y’all,” said Rich.
And so Plaid reached out to Coronavirus News for Black Folks to share Rich’s story with readers and shed light on the vaccination process from the perspective of a recipient and a Black health advocate. — Patrice Peck
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Plaid: I saw your video on Facebook about your COVID-19 vaccination journey. What motivated you to post a video?
Tierra Rich: Basically, dealing with the pandemic. [The quarantine] has taken a toll on all of us and I’m one of those people who says, “What can I do to make it right? What can I do to help save us?” I felt that there was nothing I could do. Then, my job offered [the vaccine] to us because we are essential front-line workers. I thought about it long and hard, talked to my partner about it, and we decided that it would be a good idea. Better to be safe than sorry.
In your video, you mentioned that your doctor is a member of the Nation of Islam. Though Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has advised his members against taking the vaccine, your doctor still recommended it to you. What was that conversation like?
It was awesome—shoutout to Dr. Shabazz. I asked what should I expect when getting the vaccine. She said, “I want you to know that there are four ingredients in it: most of it is the saline solution and [a form of a] sugar, and [those are media] that get [the vaccine] into your body. The other major ingredient is the mRNA, [which is] the protein of the virus that forms the spiky balls [associated with this coronavirus]. She said it seems pretty effective right now, and that she herself might end up taking [the vaccine] because she wants to get back to work with her clients.
Describe the actual day. What happened?
I went in [to the Department of Health]. My temperature was taken and I was told to have a seat. There were three other people in the waiting room, and they were white. A staff member came out and asked which vaccine we wanted, Moderna or Pfizer. I was shocked that we had options! I stuck with what I knew and told her I wanted the Pfizer one.
They sat us in every other chair to [indicate which vaccine we’d be taking]. We provided our ID [cards.] They told us we have to come back in 21 days for the second shot, so they scheduled us for that. They gave us a CDC card. Then, they said I was good to go and to have a seat. I didn’t have to pay for anything and didn’t have to show my insurance card. They didn’t even ask me about my job, which I found interesting.
Within about five minutes, they took me to the back. A woman of color administered my shot. Another woman of color told me what my rights are as a patient. I saw them prepare the shot, and they even asked me which arm I wanted [the shot] in. I chose my right arm. They asked if I wanted to take any pictures and took photos of me with my own phone.
And I got the shot! It took about two seconds. After, they put you in another room for about 15 minutes to observe you to make sure you don’t have any bad side effects. They gave me a flyer from the CDC mobile app. The CDC’s been contacting me daily [ever since] to check in. and make sure I don’t have any side effects.
What are your reflections on having received the first shot?
I’m excited. I’m happy I did it. I helped a lot of other people I know decide if they’re going to take it. A lot of my friends are now saying, “I think I can take this thing.” That makes me feel empowered, that other people have seen me do it. I have a little comfort, too, honestly. I’m only 50 percent protected from the virus now, but 7 days after the second shot, I’ll be about 80 percent immune—I won’t be going out places though [laughter].
Right. You still have to wear a mask; you still have to socially distance. You still have to follow the precautions.
How do you feel about taking the vaccine in light of some of the skepticism emerging in Black communities? People bring up the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, but then branch off into other conspiracy theories about what “The Medical Profession” is going to do to Black folks in taking the vaccine.
A friend of mine, who is a breast cancer surgeon connected me with my primary care physician, Dr. Shabazz. These are two Black women in medicine in Philadelphia, that’s powerful enough for me.
My friend also posted an article on Facebook about someone’s personal account of the Tuskegee Experiment. Their father received a syphilis vaccine, but their grandfather didn’t. In that case, [medical professionals] were literally testing things on these Black people and not giving them a vaccine. Treatments were purposefully withheld from Black people back in those days. In this situation [with COVID-19], they are giving the vaccine to take care of you, to heal you.
That study caused a lot of valid distrust. This [vaccine] ain’t that, though. Some people aren’t differentiating the two.
It’s not like the U.S. Public Health Department has said, “Black people, come get this!” or “We just want Black people!” I got mine after Mike Pence and Joe Biden got their shots. So, I was definitely feeling confident, having seen two powerful people get vaccinated and be fine.
And a friend who is a science teacher told me about Onesimus, a West African-born man who helped mitigate the impact of smallpox outbreak in Boston. He was enslaved and given to Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in 1706. Onesimus introduced Mather to the principle and procedure of inoculation because West Africans have been practicing vaccinations for centuries. Those are the things we [in Black communities] need to learn about, that we are the people who [brought the knowledge of] vaccines [to the U.S.]
I also want to talk about inequities within the COVID-19 vaccine rollout because Black and brown communities are reportedly having a harder time getting vaccinated. What are your thoughts on that?
I am upset about the racial disparities with the rollout. My aunt in DC who is over 65 and has a preexisting condition hasn't received a shot yet. It doesn't make sense to me that people who should be getting the shot first aren't. It's heartbreaking, and another example of how class and race have a huge impact in a person’s health and wellbeing.
There's a new survey saying that 62 percent of Black people are willing to get vaccinated?
In light of the vaccination disparities, do you think the disparities will dampen people’s enthusiasm to get it?I think people are tired of being at home, and they are going to eventually demand these shots. If they see folks who live in wealthy neighborhoods like Rittenhouse getting “back to normal” before others, they are going to get mad. They’ll get backdoor doses from folks who have access. Trust me, people will find a way to get this vaccine, regardless. People want to be with their families again. I'm sure they’ll go over hell and high water to ensure that happens soon.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
I would advise everyone to get their information about the vaccine from a physician and to go from there. Also, get yourself checked out, if possible. Know your blood levels and all that. In Philadelphia, you can go to a health centers—it’s free to get check-ups.
Named one of Ebony.com’s “8 Dynamic Black Women Editors in New Media” in 2013, Andrea Plaid’s work on race, gender, sex, and sexuality has appeared in On The Issues, In These Times,Bitch.com, and Rewire. Her commentary has appeared in Chicago Tribune and Washington Post and on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. She is writing the forthcoming stylebook, Penning with the People, for the The Feminist Wire / University of Arizona Press’ book series. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.