As president and dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice is one of the leading medical educators in the country. So, when coronavirus began to hit the Black community in alarming numbers, she was among the first to advocate for widespread testing and information distribution.
Later, when the vaccine became available, she stepped up to publicly receive it in order to demonstrate its safety to the people who could benefit from it most, but may be resistant to taking it. She spoke to BET.com recently for a video interview explaining why that message is so important to her. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
BET.com: You received the Coronavirus vaccine late last year as part of an effort to send a message to the community that it is safe to take. What was your personal story about taking the vaccine?
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice: I really had been preparing myself for this opportunity...didn't know when it would occur. Prior to that, starting in about August or September, myself and the other presidents of the four historically Black medical schools, along with BlackDoctor.org, the Black Coalition Against COVID, the National Medical Association and the National Urban League. We had been hosting town halls, webinars around the country to really talk about a lot of the distrust and the mistrust that had been experienced between the Black community and the health system.
We also wanted to assure the community that we Black clinicians, Black scientists, were very involved in the development of the trial. I was on several NIH (National Institutes of Health) panels. So we were trying to lay the groundwork for the community to feel confident that we believed in the safety and the efficacy of these vaccines. So when my time came, and I was asked what I consider as a health care professional taking the vaccine on air with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, I did not hesitate. And I didn't hesitate because I wanted the community to be assured that first of all, I believe in science. Secondly, I would never put anything in my body that I did not believe was safe.
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BET.com: Although many in the United States are getting the vaccine, there is a disproportionate number of African Americans who are unable to get it. Why is that? And what can be done about it?
Dr. Montgomery Rice: We clearly have a supply issue here in the United States. And we were trying to guard against that also, so many of us have been working on assuring the equitable distribution of the vaccine once it became available. So we made ourselves and many of our community sites and many of our partner sites available for vaccine administration. In fact, Morehouse School of Medicine for the last eight weekends, has had vaccination Saturdays and we vaccinated well over 2500 persons. 68% of those people, 70% of those people are people of color.
I was so excited when President Biden announced that they would be able to ramp up significantly the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because Merck now has agreed to start producing that vaccine in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson as well. They have also purchased more Moderna and more Pfizer vaccine. So now we hopefully are not going to have a supply problem.
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BET.com: Have others been coming up to you and speaking to you personally about the vaccine?
Dr. Montgomery Rice: More than you can imagine. Not only have I had the conversations in my house or in my family units, in my friend units, in my social units, I've also participated in countless webinars and seminars and question and answer sessions to really address the fears that people have about the vaccine, to educate people about the different vaccines, and to assure people that this is a very important tool in our toolkit for mitigating the ravages of COVID-19, particularly in the Black community.
BET.com: There are still a lot of myths out there that discourage taking the vaccine, what's your school doing to convince people that it is safe?
Dr. Montgomery Rice: We are continuing to participate in vaccine trials, we have vaccine trials going on here at Morehouse School of Medicine. We also are participating in therapeutic trials. Some of them are observational, so we've just agreed to participate in a trial that will look at people who have received a vaccination that will follow them over the next two years to understand if they have any long term unintended consequences.
We also are participating in a trial called the “Long-haulers” trial. And you remember those — a group of people who have had COVID, who are continuing to have symptoms, months after they no longer has active virus — and we are participating in that trial. We also are doing educational seminars, to anyone who asks. And it's not just me, but many of my other faculty, our medical students, our [physician's assistant] students are volunteering. And we are all sharing our knowledge about COVID-19 and the vaccine and therapeutics, because it's not just one thing to prevent you from getting it.
But if you get it, we want to make sure that people have access to the most optimal therapies, we are trying to be that anchor for the community, that trusted authority for the community.
For the latest on the coronavirus, check out BET’s blog on the virus, and contact your local health department or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Photo Credit: Paul Morigi/AP Images for Morehouse School of Medicine