Sometimes a cliché is just right. The Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, for example, does look like a war zone.
Most of the residents are African American, and what that means, not just here but nationally, is that they are being hospitalized and dying of COVID-19 at two to three times the rate of White Americans. Prison is a perfect breeding ground for the disease, but when ex-convicts come home to Sandtown, they’re given a gentler euphemism: “Returning citizens.”
“We still have massive unemployment within the community. We have returning citizens,” the Reverend Derrick DeWitt said.
DeWitt is a field marshal in the local war against poverty, disease and hunger.
“My church is located in a food desert. Seventy-four square blocks of Sandtown,” DeWitt told “CBS Sunday Morning’s” Ted Koppel. “We have about 109 establishments that sell alcohol. But we don’t have one single supermarket.”
Five thousand families a month are getting food at the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Convincing those same people to get vaccinated against COVID is more complicated. Blame some of that on the trash circulating on the internet.
“There’s this conspiracy that Bill Gates has helped them to design a microchip that will be implanted in you as a result of the vaccination,” DeWitt said.
Even more dangerous are the distortions of a genuine medical outrage. One headline claims to show government health workers, clearly from many years ago, injecting southern rural Blacks with syphilis. Then, at the bottom of the page, the question: “Still want a corona vaccine?”
The government didn’t inject anyone with syphilis, but what did happen was, in some respects, even worse.
Dr. Reed Tuckson is co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, providing facts about the vaccine.
“The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in African Americans began in the 1930’s,” Tuckson told Koppel. “It was a study that was done without informed consent of the men and it was done in a way that watched to observe what would happen to those who already had syphilis and it was untreated … to see what the effects would be.”
Almost 50 years after it ended, the Tuskegee study remains an issue.
“Unfortunately, in the 1940s we had a drug called penicillin, which we knew was effective to treat this disease,” Tuckson said. “And those men were denied access to it. The study went on for 40 years without anyone raising alarms or concerns.”
What happened to those men?
“Unfortunately, two things: those men died because of the disease and became extremely ill for long, long periods of their life.” Tuckson said. “And number two, because they were not told the disease they had, they spread that disease to the women in their lives, to their wives and lovers, who also got syphilis as a result.”
“No one was ever punished or held accountable … for this outrage,” Tuckson said. “And that is a stain on America’s conscience.”
It has also had a lingering impact on the Black community’s confidence in the medical establishment.
“And what is so outrageous today is that 40 years later the Tuskegee syphilis study experience continues to be the rate-limiting step in fighting this pandemic,” Tuckson said.
“And then you couple all of that with the conspiracy theories that’s out there,” DeWitt said. “When I talk to our … employees, it was everything. ‘I don’t know what’s in the vaccine. I don’t trust it. They developed it too fast. You know, they’re trying to make us sterile.'”
In addition to his ministry, the reverend runs a nursing home.
“That nursing home was started by a group of pastors in the city as the Maryland Baptist Aged Home for Colored People in 1920,” DeWitt said.
Nationwide, more than 160,000 COVID deaths have occurred in nursing homes. All of which makes this nursing home’s health record that much more remarkable.
“We’ve had no COVID infections amongst our staff or our residents, thank God,” DeWitt said. “So we count that as a miracle and a blessing.”
It is also the mark of a tough, disciplined manager.
“We were extreme in our measures because we didn’t allow anybody in,” DeWitt said. “Our residents didn’t go out unless it was an extreme emergency.”
But when time came to vaccinate the staff: “I was surprised even at my nursing home, which has 42 employees. Our first vaccination clinic, we only had 11 employees take the vaccine,” DeWitt said.
The reverend set the example. He was the first to be vaccinated. He talked to his staff one on one. He prayed with them.
“So that kinda helped,” DeWitt said. “And then we had to get down to the point where, for the sake of our residents and the type of facility that we are, I’m not sure that I can guarantee your job if you don’t take the vaccine.”
All but two of his employees got the message — and the vaccine.
“We have not had to fire anybody,” DeWitt told Koppel. “There is some discrepancies of whether or not we can mandate the vaccine.”
“But what you’re telling me is that we’ve now had COVID in this country for over a year,” Koppel said. “And in that time you haven’t had a single case.”
“We haven’t had a single case,” DeWitt said.
A. G. Rhodes operates three nonprofit nursing homes in the greater Atlanta area. Over the past year, 26 of their residents and 1 staff member have died from COVID. Jovonne Harvey is marketing director at the flagship facility.
“About 90% of the facility is probably African American,” Harvey told Koppel.
“And when the patients first heard about the vaccine, what was the reaction?” Koppel asked.
“They welcomed it because they wanted to get back to their normal daily functions,” Harvey said.
“And what about the staff, same thing?” Koppel asked.
Harvey said they “weren’t as excited to receive the vaccine as the residents were.”
“You’re being very, very diplomatic,” Koppel said. “They not only weren’t excited. They were resistant, weren’t they?”
“Yes, they were. They were very resistant,” Harvey said. “I would say about, maybe 30% of the staff were prepared to take the vaccine.”
The company held a town meeting to address their employees’ concerns. Harvey, who was initially hesitant herself, got the vaccine and was among the first to help spread the message:
“So you were kind of the role model in some respects,” Koppel said.
“I think it helped a lot,” Harvey said.
Well, not so much. The company even offered incentives: paid time off, bonuses of up to $500. As of now, just 48% of the staff has been vaccinated.
“It’s not great. But it is definitely a start,” Harvey said.
“Jovonne, we’ve been in the clutches of this pandemic for over a year,” Koppel said. “How much time do people need? We’ve got 450 some-odd thousand dead.”
“I know,” Harvey said.
“What’s holding them back now?” Koppel asked.
“I just think it’s just overall fear,” Harvey said. “They’re not sure which way to go.”
“I’ve heard both that young people are talking to the elders in their family and saying, ‘You really need to get the vaccine,'” Koppel said to Dr. Reed Tuckson. “And on the other hand, I’m hearing that among the people in the Black community most suspicious of the vaccine are members of the young community. Which is it?”
“The population segment that’s most resistant are gonna be our young people. These are young people that have grown up with the greatest level of distrust, because of all the issues that they have faced in their life, particularly around the criminal justice and policing issues,” Tuckson said. “So they are the ones that are the toughest right now to reach.”
Jim Mangia is president and CEO of St John’s Well Child and Family Center. Their community clinics, in South L.A. and Compton, see 100,000 patients a year, including 35,000 undocumented immigrants.
“L.A. Is really a tale of two cities. You have the extremely wealthy West Side, and then you have the extremely poor South Side and East Side,” Mangia told Koppel.
St. John’s has been on the frontlines of the battle against COVID. Now they’re trying to combat misinformation about the vaccine.
Sending out Spanish-speaking outreach workers into the Latino neighborhoods. They need to reassure the undocumented: that they won’t be handed over to immigration, and, even more important, that getting the vaccine won’t kill them.
St. John’s is vaccinating 1,500 to 2,000 people a day; but Jim Mangia insists that’s not nearly enough.
“What would you say are the biggest hurdles in the way of getting the most underserved communities in California vaccinated?” Koppel asked.
“The lack of vaccine is a major issue,” Mangia said. “The arduous website and appointment system that the state has set up is extremely difficult to navigate. And many of our patients who work all day, by the time they get home, all those appointments have been taken by folks from the West Side — White, young hipsters that can spend all day searching for vaccine.”
Preliminary government data show a stark disparity among races getting the vaccines: more than 60% of vaccinations have been going to White people, less than 9% to Hispanics and less than 6% to Blacks.
“I don’t think we’re going to be successful unless we figure out a way to bring the vaccine to the people,” DeWitt said. “We’re seeing 5,000 people a month come through our church to get food … If we can vaccinate during a food drive, if we enlist the faith-based community as partners in the vaccination process, I think that it would go a long way to making sure that people get the vaccine.”
“You have to vaccinate the most vulnerable first and that’s how you’re going to really get to herd immunity,” Mangia said. “You have to vaccinate the most hesitant, the most vulnerable, and then you can really start to do mass vaccination and get us to a place where we can return to a normal life.”