Integration, Innovation & Racial Justice
On Feb. 17, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joseph Biden, appeared with Meharry President James Hildreth, PhD, MD during a virtual "fireside chat" as part of the 2021 Meharry Health Equity Convening: "Health Integration, Innovation and Racial Justice: A Call to Action."
Both recognized leaders in infectious diseases, the two compared perspectives on COVID-19, with Fauci delivering his outlook on the worldwide pandemic. "I've been through a lot of infectious disease crises," he said. "I've never ... been through one that immobilized the world for a year."
The two spoke at great length about the development and distribution of vaccines, as well as addressing confidence among minorities in taking the vaccine.
Of ongoing concern, however, is a distrust among many in the African American community about the safety of the vaccine. Fauci, who has been actively addressing African American churches and organizations, noted this distrust is understandable based on the egregious violations of ethical principles in the past. "The hesitancy that we see in African Americans really relates to something that we need to deal with. It's an extraordinary, unfortunate history that African Americans have been subjected to under federal programs that related to health issues," said Fauci of the infamous Tuskegee experiment. The horror of that and other human experimentation on Black populations has been handed down through generations.
"You have to respect that hesitancy," said Fauci, adding you have to acknowledge what happened was real and isn't something to be simply set aside. However, he continued, the next you do is to say, "Since that time, there have been ethical constraints and guidelines that have been put into place that would make something like that impossible today to happen."
Once the historical fear has been addressed, Fauci said the number one reason for reluctance is a feeling that the vaccines were created too quickly ... perhaps corners were cut. Fauci stressed the vaccine candidates have been through exhaustive reviews and are safe and effective. He pointed out the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines merely reflects the "extraordinary advances in the science of vaccine platform technology."
Hildreth, who sits on the vaccine advisory review board and was recently named to President Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force (see box), along with other prominent Black physicians, providers and community leaders across the country have helped address many of those fears by publicly receiving vaccines. Speaking honestly and clearly about where the science has led public health practice is a key factor, as well.
Hildreth pointed to a recent award Fauci received from Israel for speaking "truth to power" while serving on the coronavirus task force during the Trump administration. Fauci noted the fact that there was any type of discussion or disagreement over items that should have been purely in the public health realm - masks, congregate settings - was discouraging. He said he was astounded by reports of overwhelmed ICUs filled with COVID patients and people in the same area claiming the pandemic was just a 'hoax' and 'fake news.'
Fauci said one lesson to be learned from the past year is to recognize how the politicization of the CDC and FDA affects public health. "Counterproductive is a mild word," he said. "I think what we do is remain acutely aware that it can happen ... some organizations should be completely free of political influence."
Fauci said the Biden administration's move to rejoin the World Health Organization is a significant step forward. "Obviously you have to take care of your own country, but we live in a global community," he pointed out. Fauci added, even if the pandemic is brought under control in the United States, a failure to help the rest of the world means we continually will be threatened by mutant strains from overseas.
The evening's Health Equity Convening was presented by Meharry's School of Dentistry. Fauci commended efforts within the oral health community to help distribute vaccinations, saying the country will need all the help it can get. The virtual health summit was the first in a three-part series to open dialogue with stakeholders and health experts to develop a community-centered approach that prioritizes prevention of disease, elevates racial justice and equity and eliminates COVID-19 healthcare disparities among minority groups across the country.
"These conversations have never been more important," said Hildreth. "COVID-19 has only illuminated the gulf of health disparities that exist between majority and minority communities across our country, particularly in rural communities. Over the last year, we have further focused our collective efforts on addressing these disparities, and this Summit will provide our community with the opportunity to engage around how best to make long lasting changes that will impact the lives of all people."
Hildreth Named to National Health Equity Task Force
On Feb. 10, President Joe Biden named James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, to a new national task force to address health equity in relation to the pandemic.
"I am honored to be chosen by President Biden as a member of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force," said Hildreth. "We are facing one of the largest challenges in the history of our nation. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, and if adequate steps are not taken, this number will continue to grow. As we have seen, COVID-19 does not discriminate, it does not respect borders, and it does not behave according to our timelines.
"The virus has had the largest impact on our communities of color, among Black and brown Americans with underlying health conditions. Without our immediate attention and a national, organized effort to fight this virus, we will be dealing with its impact for years to come.
"As the president of a historically Black medical school that was founded to eradicate health disparities between majority and minority communities, this work is a focus for me and my institution. I am committed to working with our national leadership to develop cohesive plans that will address these silent killers - illnesses like COVID-19 that impact our most vulnerable populations at alarming rates. We must address the pandemic together. I am confident that President Biden's heightened focus on the pandemic will accelerate testing, treatment and vaccinations nationwide - proven strategies that will work to mitigate the virus and protect our people," Hildreth stated.
Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council in Goodlettsville, was also tapped to be part of the 12-member task force.