The effort to get the word out about the coronavirus pandemic and spreading information about vaccinations means meeting people where they are for the White House COVID Response Team, so a large part of their plan was to do just that in places like beauty salons and barbershops, which were already helping to educate their patrons.
“If you look back over the last few decades, barbershops and beauty salons have been really critical players in the public health space,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, a senior policy advisor on COVID-19 Equity who sits on the White House COVID-19 Response Team. Webb was recently part of an Instagram Live chat about the continued fight against the pandemic. “Whether it was working on high blood pressure, working on cancer screenings, even HIV/AIDS, we’ve been leaning into barbershops and beauty salons for a while and the same was true with COVID-19.
“And so we saw...barbershops were getting involved with COVID education, COVID vaccine education and so we wanted to bring that together,” said Webb.
Webb’s description opened up the “White House/BET State of Our Nation” panel discussion on Instagram hosted by Monique Rodriguez, CEO of Mielle Organics, a woman-owned, Black-led hair care and beauty brand, and founding member of supergroup Destiny’s Child and actress LeToya Luckett. They were also joined by Shalanda Young, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
During the conversation, there were several questions surrounding how the public should continue to navigate the pandemic as the nation begins to emerge from it, including whether or not it is safe to return children to schools. In fact, Luckett, a mother of two, asked that very question.
“Going through the pandemic, I was absolutely not about to send my children to daycare. I was terrified,” she confessed. “But of course now with the vaccine, do you feel it is safe to send our kids back to school, back to daycares, even if everyone isn’t vaccinated.”
Webb said that it was helpful to learn that the virus was not having as heavy a toll on younger children, but through the American Rescue Plan and other work done in the Biden-Harris Administration it has become a safer space. Plus, children ages 12-17 have now become eligible for the vaccine and younger people are expected to become eligible. “So, in the meantime, schools have gotten pretty good at the mitigation measures, mask wearing, maintaining distance, and making schools as safe as possible.”
Young added that many children are dependent on the school system for a consistent meal and that underscores the necessity of being able to bring kids back to school.
“Many children get the only meal they can count on in a school system,” she said. “So, over the last year [we] tried very hard to meet them where they were in the neighborhoods, but for some children really being out of the system for this long could have long lasting impact, so it was important, as Dr. Webb said, to bring all these things to bear, get them back in school so no one’s left behind.”
Luckett was also curious as to when the vaccines will be safe for children younger than 12 years of age, but Webb said his team is listening to the existing science as a guide.
“Right now, they’re doing studies in kids who are younger than 12 and so once they have enough data and it shows that it’s safe and it’s effective, that’s when it will be available for kids and not a moment sooner,” said Webb, noting that children are routinely vaccinated in order to go to school, so any coronavirus vaccine they take would have to meet the same standard of safety and effectiveness.
Rodriguez, went on to ask about the Delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of coronavirus in the nation, particularly about its impact on maternal health. “Will the vaccine protect from that,” she asked.
Webb affirmed that the fully vaccinated have 90 percent protection against the Delta variant and those who have taken one shot, it’s about 33 percent protection. Those who are not vaccinated at all must take the same precautions they did before vaccines were available including mask wearing and social distancing.
“The biggest threat to maternal health through this pandemic is COVID itself,” he said. “We have plenty of data that shows [the vaccines] are safe. For women who are pregnant, it actually confers some passive immunities, so women are actually passing immunity on to their children when they are born, which is so important.”
But Rodriguez also asked a question that many have asked numerous times before: “Given that this COVID vaccine has been so rushed...what would make someone trust it enough to inject it into their bodies?” Webb said for him it was a matter of simply looking at the data, which showed him that the vaccines were safe and effective.
“I think the people who ask those questions, they’re absolutely right...you should have some questions and I think it’s a matter of taking that posture of ‘I want to learn, I want to understand more’ and get those questions answered by people you trust.”
The conversation moved ahead toward the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to help African American families. Luckett asked Young what programming would be coming from the White House for those purposes.
“You’ve probably heard President Biden say this over and over, when he talks about the jobs plan and the families plan,” Young explained. “This is about making sure we do more post-pandemic than we did before.
“In many ways this country’s taken leaps and bounds after tragedies, after tragic times and this is an opportunity to do that,” she continued. “We see a tie between vaccine rates and our economic recovery, but we have these long-term plans to ensure that what we had before, recognizing there was inequity...that we build back better—that’s not just a slogan—we can do better to ensure that Black and Brown women that the money we put into the healthcare system ensures that we survive at the same rate that our white friends and counterparts survive.”
Young says Biden’s directive is to ensure that equity and inclusion are in every effort and budget decision made by her office. Rodriguez pivoted to the economic effects of the pandemic on Black businesses, causing failures in many cases. “How can getting vaccinated help bring back Black businesses and recovery and economic prosperity in the Black community,” she asked.
Towards the end of the conversation, Luckett asked Young about how Black families can take advantage of the Expanded Child Income Tax Credit. “This program has the opportunity to half child poverty in this country,” she said. “This is another example of doing better than we had before, using this as a chance to raise kids so they’re in a better position than they were even before the pandemic.”
Young explained the program gives the parents of children younger than age six a child tax credit of $3,600 and children ages six to 17, a tax credit of $3000. “Those will go out in monthly payments beginning July 15 and guess what? If you file taxes the last two years, you’ll get those automatically….This is a huge opportunity to lift kids out of poverty.”
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Finally, the conversation led into personal decisions about whether or not to take the vaccines. Luckett, Webb and Young each said that they had chosen to take it because it was the safest decision for them, given the risk of coronavirus spread. However, Rodriguez said she has chosen not to.
Although she has a nursing background, Rodriguez said “there is not enough research for me to understand the long-term effects on things such as the female reproductive system, maternal health, things that I’m very passionate about,” she said. “There’s not enough information out there for me to be comfortable with it at this time.”
Watch the full conversation above to learn more about the Biden/Harris administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout.