Local doctor urges African Americans, other skeptics to get COVID-19 vaccine

KING COUNTY, Wash. — A local doctor is speaking out to help convince African Americans and other skeptics that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe.

He says convincing the skeptics is the only way to beat back the deadly virus.

John Vassall, a highly regarded African American doctor, has had an esteemed career. He was a University of Washington medical school graduate and Chief Medical Officer at Swedish Hospital for eight years.

Vassall has witnessed the stigma of race in health care up close, beginning at the start of his career in Georgia. “And it was very difficult to even make that voice heard,” said Vassall.

The impact, he says, goes far beyond the infamous Tuskegee Experiment on unsuspecting Black men stricken with syphilis.

“I think many people, African American people, have had bad, adverse experiences with their health care provider, systems and health care systems,” Vassall said.

However, the death of George Floyd and the racial unrest that followed, all of it in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, has forced a change in the medical community, too.

“It really is the first time in my career, and mine has been a long one, that we are openly talking about racism in medicine,” Vassall said. “It has not come up. And yet when we go back and look it’s always been there.”

Now that same medical community is in the midst of a steep challenge. It is working to convince at least 70% of Americans to take the coronavirus vaccine, and still a steeper challenge, perhaps, persuading those who are not white.

The effort to convince communities of color that the vaccine is safe began months ago.

In fact, a public health expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was a part of this first-ever effort to assure that people of every race participated in the vaccine trials. The goal was to ensure that the vaccines would be safe for all.

“I mean, I’ve been in public health for over 30 years,” said Dr. Michele Andrasik, “and I just think it’s amazing to see this much effort and this much focus on inclusion.”

Dr. Andrasik is a staff scientist in Hutch’s vaccine and infectious disease division.  She calls the effort to include people of every race in the vaccine trials “unprecedented.”

And the multi-faceted campaign to achieve that, she says, has worked. More people of color participated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials than any other. But this, she says, is only the start.

“The vaccine itself isn’t going to do anything,” Andrasik said. “It is getting vaccinated that will do something to really make the difference.”

On Jan. 6, Dr. Vassall got his first vaccine shot.

He says he has a simple message for those who are hesitant about taking the vaccine.

“My first message ... is so people are clear you should take the vaccine,” says Vassall.

COVID-19 has proved so deadly for so many, especially people of color, Vassall says. “That you need to avoid getting the disease because the best thing is not to get it. And the best way to do that, of course, is to wear face coverings, to keep a social distance, to wash your hands frequently and take the vaccine. That’s really the only way we’re going to wrestle this thing to the ground is with the vaccination.”

It is a message he is sending out to everyone.