Adrian Elliot wants Black and Latino county residents, and all people of color in the Berkshires, to know that he thinks the COVID-19 vaccines are “amazing.”
Speaking at a panel dedicated to assuaging vaccine concerns among people of color, Elliot, chief of emergency medicine at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, stressed that the vaccines were proved safe and effective in clinical trials that included thousands of Black and Latino people.
And while he thinks “amazing” is a word that should be reserved for rare occasions, like landing a rover on Mars, he happily applied it to the vaccines.
“Do [the vaccines] work?” Elliot asked. “Short answer, they work. Slightly longer answer, they work really well.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick moderated the panel Tuesday night, which featured Elliot, Eden-Reneé Hayes, director of the Davis Center at Williams College, and Rosa Tabango, an immigrant and nurse at The Landing at Laurel Lake in Lee. The speakers addressed their experiences with the vaccine and answered listener questions, in a conversation dedicated to the stories, questions and comments of Berkshire residents of color.
The event was sponsored by the NAACP Berkshire County branch, Berkshire Health Systems, the Berkshire Immigrant Center, Berkshire Pride and Community Health Programs.
“COVID-19 has exposed a whole lot of America’s, and a whole lot of Massachusetts’, unfinished business,” Patrick said. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are three times as likely as white people to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and twice as likely to die. Those rates are higher still for Latinos. When it comes to getting vaccines to people of color, though, there are significant hesitancy and access barriers.
As of Feb. 7, 2 percent of people vaccinated in the Berkshires were Black and 3 percent Latino, said Pittsfield Health Department Director Gina Armstrong, though the data is incomplete, as not all recipients report their race. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3.6 percent of county residents are Black and 5.1 percent are Latino.
“It’s so much easier to prevent a disease than to treat it,” Elliot said as he encouraged people to get the shot. He dispelled common myths about the vaccines: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not use live virus, nor do they modify the recipient’s DNA.
He also warned that people who turn down vaccines could be vulnerable as “normal” life restarts.
“As we keep seeing those case numbers go down, what we do and how we act is going to start to change,” he said. “Vaccinated people are going to start gathering more. ... They’re going to mix and mingle again with a sense of security.”
When that starts to happen, he said, people who are unvaccinated will be at the highest risk.
“It’s your choice,” he said. “But, when the time comes, I want you to be informed, and I urge you to get vaccinated.”
For her part, Hayes described why people of color might not trust the vaccine, pointing to past abuses from the country’s medical system.
She spoke about the Tuskegee Experiment, where Black men with syphilis went untreated for years, and Japanese incarceration camps during World War II, where interned doctors were forced to treat their own neighbors.
And then she turned to the present.
“COVID doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “Our structural inequality does. We know as reported by the CDC that structural inequality is leaving our people at greater risk of having horrible side effects, including death, from this virus.”
Hayes highlighted some of the ongoing inequities in health care: Black women are far more likely than white women to die in childbirth, controlling for income; Black men are many times more likely to be ordered by a court into mental health treatment than white people; diabetes is significantly more prevalent among people of color than white people.
She also spoke about her own trust in the vaccines, and her desire to get the shot to protect herself and her family.
“I want to see my kids grow up,” she said.
Tabango, a COVID-19 survivor, also encouraged listeners to take the vaccine. She said she has heard people say they do not believe the virus is real, or that God will save them.
“God is not gonna come out of the air and make the cure,” she said.” He’s using his helpers. Who are his helpers? The people working on a solution.”
She described hugging her daughter for the first time after her COVID-19 isolation, and how her daughter ran out of the room afterward to shower. She urged other immigrants and people of color to help their neighbors return to a normal life by getting vaccinated.
“I came to this country by myself,” she said. “I choose to do better for myself. … Let’s do this for ourselves. Let’s do this to show we came here to do something better, to be something better, to help our community.”