Boston Medical Center Dr. Thea James understands the hesitation.
The emergency medicine physician had her own reservations about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I knew the science — that part was clear,” James said Friday. “I knew that there are strict protocols to developing a vaccine. I knew that because of the pandemic, the vaccine was produced quickly. But I also knew that it went through the same vigorous scientific review as other vaccines. I also knew that the data shows that the vaccine is 95 percent effective.”
“But with all that knowledge and information, I was still struggling,” she added. “And then one day, I said it out loud. People heard me.”
That struggle consumed her thoughts for days more before she finally reached this conclusion: “The fastest way back to thriving for us is the vaccine,” she said.
“I decided that although I was feeling helpless and struggling, the one thing I could do is I could take the vaccine, and honestly after the first shot, I felt 100 percent better,” she said. “It was just a sense of relief of burden — that I can be a part of helping us get back to a sense of normalcy where people are thriving and being able to take care of their families.”
James shared her story on Friday as city leaders work to build trust in the vaccine’s efficacy in protecting against the coronavirus — particularly in Boston’s communities of color and hardest-hit neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to be hesitant or unwilling to be vaccinated.
Preliminary findings from focus groups and surveys conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission last month illustrate a racial divide in who is willing to receive the vaccine. Longstanding mistreatment of Black populations and people of color by the health care and medical sectors in the United States have eroded trust that officials and experts are now working to build back in the throes of the global pandemic.
“We understand that some people are hesitant to take the vaccine. This is especially true in the Black and Latino communities,” Mayor Marty Walsh said during Friday’s press conference. “There is no doubt that throughout history communities of color have faced discrimination in the outright cruelty in the health care system. This is a tragic outcome for systemic racism in our country.”
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Walsh said officials have made the issue a focus of the city’s COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, which is reaching out to residents to hear about their concerns.
“COVID-19 has hit communities of color the hardest — the numbers don’t lie, the numbers say it,” he said. “The economic fallout has hit the communities of color the hardest as well. Again, the numbers don’t lie. We don’t want communities of color to miss out on the vaccine because it’s the best tool we have to put this pandemic behind us and begin to heal our city and our state and our country.”
James said she has “seen firsthand the hurt this pandemic has caused” and acknowledged there are valid reasons some communities are hesitant to be vaccinated.
“Some are historic, and some might be more recent: for example, having a bad experience with the health care system where maybe you have questions and concerns and you need more information,” James said.
She continued: “Well, I’m here today, because I understand how you feel 100 percent because I live in the world, like you do.”
James has now received both shots of the two-dose vaccine, she said. The only thing she experienced was a sore arm where she was injected with the vaccine.
Janell Jimenez, deputy superintendent of Boston EMS, said she received the vaccine in order to protect her family. Working on the frontline of the pandemic, she had constant fears of bringing home the contagious illness and infecting her loved ones, she said.
As a first responder, Jimenez qualified to receive the vaccine under Phase 1 of the state’s vaccination plan.
“If we want to one day go back to where we were,” she said, “we need to all do our part.”
Asked how the city is making sure the vaccine is easily available across neighborhoods, Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of Health and Human Services, said officials are taking on a multi-pronged approach.
Mass vaccination sites — such as using Fenway Park to distribute vaccines — are part of the plan, but so are partnerships with community organizations and sites, so residents won’t have to travel far from home, Martinez said.
The city is also hosting a series of multilingual webinars to provide information about the vaccine and distribution efforts in communities of color, among other outreach efforts, he said.
“(The vaccine) is our way out of COVID,” Martinez said. “It is our way to build safety for ourselves and our families.”