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Hill Harper Joins NAACP, Doctors For COVID “Fireside Chat”

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Hill Harper speaking Thursday with Dr. Letitia Dzirasa (left), in a "fireside chat"moderated by Faith Leach (right), deputy mayor for equity, health and human services. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Dozens of Baltimore residents stopped by the MIX Church downtown Thursday to ask their most pressing questions about the COVID-19 vaccine of city faith leaders, health officials and actor and activist Hill Harper.

Harper, known for his television roles in The Good Doctor and CSI: NY has been doing these kinds of conversations across the country to build vaccine confidence. He told WYPR this particular “fireside chat” — with an all-Black panel and nearly all-Black audience — felt “really refreshing.”

“The audience didn't feel like they had to censor themselves,” he said. “Oftentimes, across the country, audiences feel stigmatized.”

One member of the audience asked how it was possible the vaccine could come out so quickly.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa replied that scientists have been working on the technology behind the vaccine for years.

But that prompted more questions: Like how did scientists know they had to do that for years? Did the government plan this pandemic to kill Black people?

Dzirasa explained that scientists were prepared because the COVID-19 virus belongs to a family of other viruses that were spreading before the pandemic, like SARS and MERS.

“I don't know that they knew that this specific virus was coming. But the government is constantly doing research on viruses, and understanding how we can prevent them or stop the spread,” she said.

She also stressed that while Black residents have been more vulnerable to the virus due to various “social conditions,” the virus itself does not discriminate.

Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, spoke to some of the distrust people of color might have in the government.

“Regardless of what white people or government or healthcare institutions have done to betray our trust, we still have a responsibility to ourselves and to our children, and to our ancestors who brought us this far, to figure out how to keep living,” Little said.

The reverend said while he’s fully vaccinated, he describes himself as “vaccine hesitant,” because he still has questions about how it will affect him in the long term.

He told the story of his own uncertainty while getting the vaccine.

“I was in the chair to get my first shot and I was thinking, I turned my head to tell the nurse, ‘wait!’ But the needle had already gone in,” Little said. “But I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I got vaccinated. I don't know what's going to happen three years from now. But I'm confident that I'm not going to die from COVID this year.”

Another person asked how the vaccine could be safe and approved for pregnant women when the vaccine hasn’t been approved for babies and children under 12.

“A pregnant woman has a fully developed adult immune system, and her body protects the child that's in her womb,” Little said. “Once children come out of the womb, they're on their own.”

Dr. Kendra McDow, Baltimore’s chief medical officer, said children under the age of 12 are part of clinical trials. McDow said clinical trials use volunteers, and most of the time those volunteers are not children and pregnant women.

“We want to study the vaccine in children, we want to make sure it's safe, we want to make sure it's effective,” she said.

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children 12 and older.

Marcus England, pastor of the MIX church, said he has overseen multiple funerals for COVID-19 victims. He also got COVID before he got vaccinated.

“One thing I do know is that when it hits it hits hard..it can seem very distant if you don't have people around you that have been affected and have gone through the process,” England said. “I know people in our church today who do not breathe the same way.”

Robert Cort, the director of sales & operations at Five Medicine, a Black led vaccine provider that’s partnered with the city health department, described his own experience with having COVID.

“And I would never wish that on anybody,” he said. “I mean to this day, I still have problems breathing. I have workers...I mean, before they got vaccinated, some of them had COVID, I have one that she cannot taste to this day.”

Five Medicine set up its mobile clinic outside the event, but no one stopped by. Cort said he hopes going forward, Black Baltimore residents will be encouraged when they see vaccine providers that look like them.

He addressed myths about a “Black vaccine” designated for Black people, saying there was no such thing.

“There's companies like myself, our companies, that are there, making sure you're vaccinated,” Cort said. “We’re not switching the vials. We're the ones knocking on the doors and saying we’re here for you.”

Hill Harper urged the people of Baltimore to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

“Be accountable to yourself and to people next to you and to your left and to your right, and your families or friends. Viruses need a host. And the easiest way they find hosts are in people who are unvaccinated,” he said.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.