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It’s Never Too Late to Vaccinate
A local pastor, father and grandfather shares how his hesitancy turned into advocacy.
Written by Rachel M. Cunningham, MPH
Immunization Registry and Education Supervisor
Two years ago last month, the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the United States. Since that time, more than 600 million doses have been given across the country.
Importantly, the COVID-19 vaccines have been rigorously monitored and are extremely safe and effective. And yet, millions of individuals remain unvaccinated against this harmful virus. Vaccination rates among children are alarmingly low, most notably in young children and infants. In Houston, less than 3% of children 6 months to 4 years and less than 28% of children 5 to 11 years of age are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Sadly, these abysmal vaccination rates mean many vulnerable children remain unprotected from the risks of COVID-19.
Particularly concerning is the potential impact low COVID-19 vaccination rates pose to children from racial and ethnic minority groups who have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Across all aspects of life – physically, financially, educationally – Black and Hispanic Americans have been more adversely impacted by the pandemic. Not only have Black and Hispanic Americans experienced more severe health outcomes and death due to COVID-19, but these families also have suffered greater learning losses, economic challenges and household instability because of the pandemic. For instance, while more than 250,000 children have lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19, Black and Hispanic children are nearly two times as likely to have experienced such a loss. It is unequivocally clear that vaccinating these children and their families is critical to prevent further hardship and devastation from COVID-19.
Advice from a pastor, father and grandfather
To share his thoughts on the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, allow me to introduce my colleague, Pastor Keith Brown. Pastor Keith is the Director of Development at The Immunization Partnership (TIP) in Houston, TX, a non-profit organization dedicated to vaccine advocacy and education, and Interim Pastor at Northwest Community Church. Most importantly, he’s also a loving father and grandfather. Before joining TIP in 2022, he spent 20 years in ministry at a large Black American church in Los Angeles followed by four years as Executive Pastor at the largest Black American church in San Diego. It was here that Pastor Keith experienced firsthand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on his community.
Pastor Keith describes the initial phase of the pandemic as lonely and difficult as his church abruptly closed its doors, a closure that lasted nearly a year and a half. As he watched the progress of vaccine development, he regarded it with cautious optimism mixed with a large dose of apprehension.
“I was hopeful, but hesitant,” said Pastor Keith. “After everything my community had been through, I wasn’t going to be a guinea pig for the COVID-19 vaccine.” His hesitation was not only due to the devastating and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans, but also to the long-standing distrust of the medical community among many Black Americans.
This distrust is largely rooted in what took place during the tragic Tuskegee syphilis study, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1932 to 1972 to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis in several hundred Black men. Even after penicillin became widely available for syphilis treatment in the mid-1940s, the men remained untreated for several more decades, with more than 100 of them dying from lack of treatment as well as dozens of wives becoming infected and several children born with congenital syphilis. The horrific ethics violations and deceptive study practices led to massive reforms in human subjects research, but for many in the Black American community, it was too late. A tragic history often shared intergenerationally, the Tuskegee study continues to influence many Black Americans when it comes to their health decisions.
So when it came time to get vaccinated for COVID-19, Pastor Keith waited. Within a couple of months, however, evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing severe disease and death was overwhelming, and that was enough for Pastor Keith to change his mind. “I remember watching the news and learning the COVID-19 vaccine could prevent me from being hospitalized or dying from the virus,” he said. “That was all I needed to know. The vaccine had been out for a few months and by then, I knew it was time,” he recalls.
However, he began to notice that members of his community and church continued their refusal to get vaccinated. Thus began his efforts to educate others on the importance of getting the vaccine. “Once I understood the vaccine was safe and effective, I believed we had to do what we could to protect ourselves and those we love,” Pastor Keith states. “Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is essential to this.”
Today, he’s making more direct efforts by joining the team at TIP. He encourages all parents, but particularly Black American parents, to protect themselves and their children. “As a parent, there is so little we can control,” he said. But just as you put a bike helmet on your child or put them in a car seat, vaccinating for COVID-19 is the best way to protect them from the virus,” he says. “It will take time for us to heal from Tuskegee, but one way we can work towards that is not letting COVID-19 continue to harm us as it has.”
Make an appointment today
COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon. And while many parents falsely believe the risks posed by the virus to children are minimal, or even acceptable, this simply isn’t true. Just ask some of the families who received treatment here at Texas Children's Hospital. To reinforce Pastor Keith’s message and emphasize the painful realities of COVID-19, I’d like to share two of their stories here. The experience of these two families demonstrates the traumatic and profoundly life-changing impact COVID-19 can have on children.
As a mother of three, I want to give my children the best opportunity to enjoy good health this year and in the future. Vaccinating them for COVID-19 is one of the most important ways to do so. I encourage you to consider taking the opportunity at the start of this year to reflect on the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations and make getting vaccinated a priority for your family.
To schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, please click here.