Millions watched as a Black intensive care nurse in Queens, New York received the first dose in the country of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
On a mid-December Monday in 2020, the Unit- ed States recorded a coronavirus death toll topping 300,000. The 10th month of lockdown restrictions brought record low numbers of holiday travel for family visits, continued effects of economic stress both on federal and inde- pendent levels and the compounding difficulty of students receiving virtual instruction. Mil- lions watched as a Black intensive care nurse in Queens, New York received the first dose in the country of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Though a leading name among vaccine production, the Pfizer vaccine has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. News reports also detailed side effects that occurred following some of the initial administrations of the vac- cine in various parts of the country. While these facts produced hesitation or questioning about the safety of the vaccine among many, the Black community had a greater amount of reluctance to consider. Now nearly three months into countrywide vaccine distribution, doses are going to groups of healthcare workers and employees in fields with higher risks of transmitting the virus. A report from a data tracker through the CDC stated more than 60% of these doses have gone to white people, whereas only 6% have gone to African Americans. While demographics and varying vaccination phases throughout states are factors that contribute to this disparity, historical events and patterns are perhaps the greatest factors that account for this significant differ - ence. In 1932, in partnership with the Tuskegee Insti- tute, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited hundreds of rural Black men to participate in a study they were told would treat them for “bad blood,” an all-encompassing term at the time that referenced a span of conditions and ailments. Officially named the Study of Untreat - ed Syphilis in the Negro Male, the goal was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphi- lis” among Black populations. The study’s partic- ipants, however, were not provided the scope of these intentions and were denied the education
or resources that could give them the knowl- edge needed to make informed decisions about their participation. During the study, the men were given free meals, medical exams and burial insurance. They were not aware, however, the purpose of the study was to deny them medical treatment during the process. Instead of lasting the six months it initially prom- ised, the study continued for 40 years. Penicillin was widely introduced as an antibiotic to treat syphilis in 1947, yet it was not offered to the study’s participants. They were also not given the option to halt their involvement in the study and receive treatment if desired. When a federal advisory board was called in to assess the ethics of the study, the panel found the men had been misled and the study was “ethically unjustified.” A year later, settlements and reparations were distributed. However, the hindsight perspective of the study reflects a trusted group of govern - ment medical researchers intentionally omitting vital information from a group of men either seeking treatment or volunteering to participate in a study they believed would lead to the treat- ment of syphilis. Now nearly 50 years later, as a pandemic shakes the globe, the Black community is reminded of the injustices of that experiment. A host of Black educational and medical leaders across the coun- try have voiced their support of the coronavirus vaccine and are encouraging African Americans to receive it. While some say the continued rise of vaccination numbers will assuage concerns, a justified amount of anxiety around the doses is still present for many.
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