We're still seeing 1,500 dead from COVID a day, 150,000 in 2022 alone, but nobody seems to care since the fatalities are overwhelming rural and overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic in states like Virginia, Maryland, and DC.
And at every turn, the deaths are caused by disinformation in Black and Hispanic communities.
When a radio show host asked Leonder “Rico” Jerome for his thoughts on the vaccines during a roundtable with Black barbers and health experts in June, Jerome answered honestly: He was conflicted.
Although he was there to discuss an initiative to encourage Black people to take the shot, Jerome, 48, was torn between the news he consumed on vaccine efficacy and his distrust of the pharmaceutical companies that developed the shots.
“Being a man of ebony hue … you’ve seen the Tuskegee experiments, you’ve seen so many different things — to tell me you’re not going to be paranoid is a lie,” Jerome said on the program, adding that he was not vaccinated. “My percentages have been getting higher to get [a vaccine dose] very soon. But I’m still deep in prayer.”
Three months later, his symptoms emerged. As slight discomfort devolved into a fever, Jerome’s loved ones urged him to seek medical help. Within weeks, he was placed on life support for covid pneumonia.
As District lawmakers and residents tangled over the merits of masking and vaccination mandates, Jerome spent the next three months in different hospitals, healing from surgeries on his lungs and kidneys. Even though he had no underlying health conditions, doctors told his sister, Ebony Ellison, that she should start making end-of-life plans. Jerome had a 3 percent chance of survival.
“They said if he was vaccinated, he would not be on life support,” Ellison said, remembering the conversations she had with her brother about vaccination. “He would talk about syphilis [and Tuskegee], but I didn’t go into it with him. Trying to convince someone, especially when you’re the youngest sibling — you give up the fight.”
Health experts and advocates in the District say Jerome’s case is emblematic of the vaccine-related hesitancy and distrust they’ve frequently encountered in majority-Black neighborhoods, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic at every stage.
Black residents accounted for an overwhelming majority of the city’s 102 coronavirus deaths over the last three months, said Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for health and human services. Of those, more than 3 in 4 were unvaccinated; 1 in 5 had some doses but lacked a booster shot; and 9 in 10 suffered from an underlying condition, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.
“When omicron came, and we found you needed a booster, you had to almost start over,” said Tuckson, of the Black Coalition Against Covid. “There was not only hardening of misinformation in too much of Black America and the anti-vaccine community, but we also had people that were tired.”
For some Black residents, he said, vaccine distrust is intertwined with frustration over other issues such as police brutality, racism and voter disenfranchisement. For Jerome and some of his friends, that hesitation stems from America’s racist history, including leaders who once considered him and his relatives to be three-fifths of a person and the Tuskegee study. That trepidation has only been intensified by posts on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook that raise doubts over the safety of the vaccines.
The District has used a mix of financial incentives and interventions to reduce gaps in vaccination rates. But Turnage warned of a “tremendous level of misinformation” across social media that continues to influence Black residents.
“There are great reasons to be angry and bitter about Tuskegee, but the issue was people denied access to drugs that could have saved them. In this case, for some odd reason, we deny access to ourselves to the drug that would save us, as some type of protest,” Tuckson said.
In mid-December, as the omicron variant sent more unvaccinated residents into city hospitals, Jerome was released. Doctors described his recovery as a miracle.
He feels more pressure now to get vaccinated, he said. But he’s still undecided.
The horrible, horrible secret is white America considers COVID a Black problem that doesn't exist in white neighborhoods. And if you wanted to kill as many Black people as possible, you'd make sure that decreasing health care funding, spreading disinformation, and sowing distrust among communities was going exactly the way it's going now: telling white folk that "lazy, fat, sickly Black people" are the ones that need the vaccine, not you, and then telling Black folks "Hey, have you ever been able to trust the US government on health care for Black America?"
And here we are, with a third unvaccinated, probably another 15-20% vaccinated but not boosted, and only a small minority of Black Americans caught up with shots.
We always suffer the most, first and last.