Experts addresss concerns of Black community over COVID-19 vaccines at town hall meeting

By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Zainab Abdurrahman

Normally, in the pre-Coronavirus pandemic era, Dr Onye Nnorom would have been returning to Toronto after participating in the annual carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago.

The family physician, who is the daughter of Trinidadian and Nigerian parents, admits that she missed not being able to attend Trinidad’s 2021 carnival that was cancelled by the government of T&T as a COVID-19 precautionary measure.

Nnorom acknowledges the hesitancy of Black people in Canada and elsewhere and their unwillingness to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines. But, she says, vaccination is needed if there’s to be a return to regular social activities like family gatherings and carnival celebrations.

“COVID-19 is having a negative impact on our community; it is affecting our collective health. So, at this time, the best option for us is the vaccine,’’ Nnorom told participants at an online townhall meeting last Saturday. “We do want to get our lives back and the vaccine is our best defence to be able to do that.’’

Dr Isaac Odame and Dr Onye Nnorom

The townhall was the first in a planned series of outreach activities of the recently formed “Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity’’, which has been set up by the City of Toronto.

The mandate Task Force, which includes Black public health officials and scientists, is to “develop public health recommendations to address Black community concerns’’ about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The concerns include distrust about the safety of the vaccines, as well as vaccination hesitancy rooted in past experiences of people of African descent being used as experimental objects, instead of receiving genuine medical vaccine treatment.

Dr Isaac Odame, head of the Haematology Section at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), said taking the vaccine “is about our responsibility to one another’’.

“When we are infected, we can put others at risk as well,’’ said Odame, who was one of the featured speakers at Saturday’s townhall. “It is that concern that makes me want to get the vaccine early, so that I can protect myself, I can protect my patients.’’

Celina Caesar-Chavannes

The Coronavirus is “ten times more likely to kill you than the flu’’, said Odame, medical director of the Global Sickle Cell Disease Network at SickKids.

“On Thursday, I’ll be getting my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I decided very early that I’m going to take the vaccine. As healthcare workers, we work with people,’’ said Odame. “This virus is powerful and it only thrives when people contact each other and that’s why lockdowns are very effective in bringing the infection rates down.’’

Other townhall speakers were allergist Dr Zainab Abdurrahman and research consultant and former Canadian MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes.

Toronto councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s board of health, reported that 79 percent of all cases of COVID in the City of Toronto has been racialized Torontonians.

“Black Torontonians, despite being only nine percent of the city’s population, have been – at any given time – anywhere between 16 and 32 percent of all cases,’’ he said.

“The hard truth is that COIVID-19 has exposed and, in fact, exacerbated so many pre-existing inequities in our city, in our province and in our country,’’ added Cressy. “That’s brutal; there’s no other way to say it.’’

Abdurrahman, allergy lead in the Special Immunization Clinic at McMaster Children’s Hospital, said the vaccines being administered to Canadians were subjected to a “very regimented study process in different phases’’ and “have gone through all of the checks and balances. So, these are approved based on the science and they have completed the experimental phase and now we’re in the administration phase.’’

Just as is done in approving other medication, there is a system for reporting, monitoring and following up with patients on any side effects that emerge from taking the COVID vaccines, Abdurrahman said.

“The vaccines are not a hundred percent protection from infection. But, it will reduce your risk of getting symptomatic infection by 94 to 95 percent; that is a huge reduction,’’ she said.

The vaccine “is for us, just as it is for White folks’’, said Odame, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of its Division of Adult and Paediatric Haematology.

He noted that Black scientists were involved in developing the COVID-19 vaccines. “We should be celebrating Black science, while we think of taking this vaccine,’’ urged Odame. “The vaccines work on Blacks just as well as they work on Whites, and the side effects were not any different in Blacks than they are in Whites.’’

Dr Nnorom, a public health and preventive medicine specialist and Black Scientists’ Task Force member, said she understands the reluctance, and the “need for a pause’’ by some, in taking the COVID vaccine.

“In fact, that is traditional wisdom because that is how we survived colonialization and slavery. We don’t just run up in line; we take a moment to pause. However, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted us,’’ said Nnorom, president of the Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario.

“We are giving the information to you. We’re not saying you have to go get it. We simply have access to information and we want to relay that you.’’

The current situation with the COVID-19 vaccines requires “an all-hands-on-deck approach’’ to disseminating information “not just to the people that we know in our communities but throughout the Diaspora’’, said Caesar-Chavannes, whose work as business owner has involved private, government and non-government organizations.

“We need to activate our different networks and to share that information as much as possible, so that more people are engaged in this conversation.’’