Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s most famous infectious disease expert, joined a group of Virginia clergy and politicians to deliver a simple message Friday afternoon: The COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved are safe and should be taken by whomever is eligible.
Fauci took part in the Virginia Department of Health’s “Facts and Faith Friday,” an initiative of the VDH’s Office of Health and Equity aimed at sharing accurate COVID information with clergy from around the state that can then be shared with congregants.
On Friday, much of the focus was on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities in the state, as well as disproportionate skepticism of the recently approved vaccines. Gov. Ralph Northam also participated in the Zoom conference.
“History tells us [minorities] have not always been treated fairly and ethically by the federal government in their medical approaches. That’s a shameful past that we have to live with,” Fauci said, referencing the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in the 1930s. “But there are now safeguards in place that will never allow that to happen again. … We want you all to get vaccinated by your own protection, for that of your family and for your community.”
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said no evidence of long-term health problems was found in trials for either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, both of which included over 30,000 participants.
But that hasn’t stopped disinformation and other conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine from spreading online. In June, a Science Magazine survey Fauci referenced in his presentation showed that African-Americans had more skepticism about the vaccines than any other racial group, with only 25% of Black respondents saying they would get the vaccine, 32% saying they were unsure and 40% saying they wouldn’t.
Hispanic respondents had slightly less skepticism, but still more than the overall population. Both groups, however, have been hit particularly hard by the virus in terms of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Fauci attributed this to the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions in the Black and Hispanic populations, as well as the fact that they’re more likely to have jobs that require person-to-person contact.
One of the most common concerns voiced about the vaccines surround the speed with which they were developed. The process for developing and studying the vaccines moved at a record-breaking pace, but Fauci said that was entirely due to advances in the science and the work of some of the world’s best scientists.
“The speed was related to extraordinarily breathtaking scientific advances in vaccine platform technologies that allowed us to do in months what normally would have taken years,” Fauci said. “You should be saying that the process was both independent and transparent.”
Northam, himself a physician, briefly described how the vaccine works.
“No one has cut any corners. The vaccines do not give you the disease,” Northam said, describing the mRNA platforms with which the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were created. “Instead, they spur your body to produce antibodies to the disease. … You will not get COVID from the vaccine. Scientists know how to create vaccines that work and are safe. So I have no hesitation about taking this vaccine when my turn comes.”
Northam and others did briefly touch on the slow rollout the state has seen at the beginning of its vaccination program. Up to now, only frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff were eligible to receive the vaccine, although starting Monday, Northern Virginia health districts can begin administering the vaccine to front-line essential workers, including teachers, and anyone over age 75.
Across the state, through Saturday, just 177,945 doses of the two approved vaccines had been administered out of 510,800 that Virginia has received, according to VDH numbers. In the Prince William Health District, which encompasses the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, 5,578 doses have been delivered.
Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, said that when the general population of certain age groups becomes eligible for the vaccine, the state would like to see local health departments partner with houses of worship as vaccination sites, to help distribute doses and make people more comfortable with the vaccines.
“Our local health departments would be eager to work with faith leaders in the local jurisdictions around the commonwealth to have those sites be places where we can carry out vaccination at the time when we are ready to roll that out to the general public,” Oliver said.
According to Fauci, the federal government hopes to begin “open season” for the vaccine, during which anyone who wants one can sign up to get one, starting in April. Thus far, however, the rollout nationally and in Virginia has been behind previously announced timelines.