May and UC Davis Health’s Dr. David Tom Cooke said they hope that their vaccinations will ease skepticism about the vaccine in communities of color
On Jan. 5, Chancellor Gary May spoke to The California Aggie about his decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19 last December. May said he took the Pfizer vaccine on behalf of communities of color—particularly the Black community—who he said have expressed skepticism about the rapid development of vaccinations against the deadly virus. In doing so, he says he hopes to ease the concerns of Black people who doubt the efficacy of the new COVID-19 vaccines.
According to a December 2020 Pew Research study, the Black community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Of the Black Americans surveyed, 71% knew someone who had been hospitalized due to COVID-19 or had died of COVID-19, compared to 54% of Americans overall. The percentage of Black Americans who said they would take the vaccine was only 42%, compared to 63% of Hispanic adults and 61% of white adults surveyed in the study.
“There is a cultural DNA of distrust [of the medical establishment] in the Black community,” said Dr. David Tom Cooke, a thoracic surgeon at UC Davis Health who participated in an Aug. 2020 coronavirus vaccine trial.
Cooke, who is Black, referenced the use of Black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer without knowing that her doctor had harvested cells from her cervix that would later be used for groundbreaking medical research—research that benefited the doctors who commercialized her cell cultures.
Cooke also had concerns regarding a lack of diversity in early data release before he participated in the trial.
“I thought that was problematic given the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 in the Black, Latin-American and Indigenous communities,” Cooke said.
The trial was double-blind, meaning that neither its coordinators nor its participants knew whether the participants were being given placebos or the real vaccine.
“I was recently ‘unblinded’ and learned that I’d received the vaccine,” Cooke said.
He received the first Pfizer shot in August and the second, final shot in September.
May was vaccinated following the second shipment of Pfizer vaccines to UC Davis Health in December 2020. He acknowledged the necessity of essential workers receiving the vaccine, saying that approximately 6,000 of those workers at UC Davis Health were vaccinated before he was.
“UC Davis Health received those vaccinations from Pfizer in the second week of December and those two weeks they were really focusing on those essential workers,” said Dana Topousis, a spokesperson for UC Davis.
“I was sensitive to not jumping in front of people and making sure that our essential workers got theirs first,” May said. “I didn’t want to use my privilege to jump the line, but the weight of being able to tell that story to these communities [of color] outweighed that concern.”
May said that the vials containing the Pfizer vaccine in the second shipment to UC Davis Health contained about 20% more material than what was received in the first shipment, enabling more people to access it.
“I’d always planned to get vaccinated—I wasn’t hesitant about that,” he said. “I guess we had an informal conversation in one of our leadership meetings where I was sharing with the team that there was a lot of skepticism and reluctance in the Black community [about the vaccine], even within my family and my friends and my social network. When [UC Davis] got the vaccine a month later, the opportunity presented itself.”
He spoke about the legacy of malpractice and mistreatment by the medical establishment and the U.S. government in the Black community, which may account for the community’s skepticism regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I think there’s a long history,” he said. “If you go back as far as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where Black patients were injected with syphilis without their knowledge, there are a series of incidents and events like this. There have been instances of mistreatment, maltreatment and there’s the view that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain.”
May said that the historical mistreatment and record speed of the vaccine development contributed to increased skepticism in Black American communities.
“Being someone in science, in a leadership role that is respected within the community, it was good for me to take it,” May said. “I’ve had conversations with people as close to me as my sister and friends and family—some of whom I’ve persuaded and some of whom are deciding on their own.”
According to Cooke, COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect the Black community due to higher numbers of Black people in essential worker jobs. People of color are also more likely to take public transportation, increasing their potential exposure to COVID-19. He noted that the workers who cleaned up the Capitol building following a violent attack by President Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6 were people of color.
“When you look at that attack and the aftermath of that attack, if you look at the images and the videos of the people sweeping up the glass and the debris and packaging the debris from that terrorist attack, there are people of color doing that,” Cooke said. “They cannot work from home. They were there in the middle of the night. They were there cleaning up the U.S. Capitol, the seat of our democracy.”
Editor’s note: The original story referred to the violent attack on the Capitol as a protest and has since been updated so as not to misrepresent the event.