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The University of Michigan’s chapter of  the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted a roundtable discussion Tuesday for Black History Month about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, recently-approved vaccines and racial disparities throughout the American health care system. 

LSA senior Blake Coleman, president of the U-M NAACP, told The Michigan Daily after the event the group usually holds a series of events to commemorate the national organization’s founding on Feb. 12. The week typically is marked by a series of talks, including one on health for the Black community. Coleman said the pandemic has dominated lives this year — there was no way the group could avoid discussing it considering the impact it has had. 

“Just scrolling through the timeline, you see so much backlash and so many people for (the vaccine), that we were like, ‘Why not host an event where we can actually have this knowledge be spread in one central place, rather than people getting 100 million sources down their timeline?’” Coleman said. “We wanted to give people the space to share their fears or concerns about the vaccine as well.”

The event began with a presentation by LSA junior Arianna McClellan and LSA senior Diamond Buchanan, U-M NAACP health awareness chairs, about the vaccine approval process and data on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being distributed

McClellan explained the vaccine does not contain live SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and how as a result one cannot become sick or test positive for the disease after getting vaccinated. She said the vaccine unequivocally protects recipients from severe COVID-19.

McClellan then moved to discussing racial disparities in health care and particularly health research, mentioning the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells make up an important part of modern medicine but who never consented to the use of her cells for research. She also mentioned disparities in COVID-19 vaccine trials, with few Black and Latino participants, despite the fact those two groups account for almost 60% of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Other groups, such as Asian participants, also make up only a very small portion of trial participants, specifically 4%.  

“The COVID vaccine trials are unrepresentative of minority groups,” McClellan said. “Of the 350,000 people that are registered for the COVID clinical trial, only 10% were Black or Latino.”

At that point, participants began the roundtable discussion, first discussing the lack of access to the COVID-19 vaccine in underrepresented populations before sharing some of their own feelings regarding the vaccine. Some students expressed a lack of confidence in the vaccine due to what they saw as a lack of information reaching them.

LSA senior Justin Williams, first vice president of the U-M NAACP, said he personally found there to be not enough accessible information on the population makeup of the COVID-19 vaccine trials. 

“Personally, I haven’t heard anything about who exactly they had in these studies when they were going through all the trials,” Williams said. “I just feel like being transparent with that data, making sure that that’s publicized too, I feel like that’s very important to help regain trust.”

Coleman said during the discussion a large part of the distrust in the Black community about the COVID-19 vaccine is the inaccessibility of the information that does exist.

 “A 30-page essay about the vaccine is only going to convince other scientists who already know (the vaccine is effective),” Coleman said. “I mean if you want the average person to get vaccinated, you should be making it in terms that everybody can understand and making information digestible.”

In an interview with The Daily after the event, Coleman said making that information available was part of the goal of this discussion.

“We started off with just a whole bunch of facts about the vaccine itself and the type of vaccines available,” Coleman said. “That information is out there, somewhat, but it’s not actually being shared in a way that everybody can understand or in a way that everybody wants to be engaged with that type of material. So, we wanted to start the event with that information so we can say that we helped educate people.”

In the discussion, Coleman also expressed a distrust of the medical system in general among the Black community.

“I think you have to start at such a small level,” Coleman said. “There’s just so much to work on, honestly, so I’m not sure how to gain the trust of the Black population. I wouldn’t even say ‘after years of mistreatment,’ because the mistreatment is still going on.”

Participants then talked about mandating vaccines as they become more widely available, something U-M President Mark Schlissel previously rejected doing in an interview with The Daily. LSA senior Kara Manuel said the University will likely have to pursue vaccine mandates prior to bringing students back onto campus as in a pre-pandemic semester. 

“I feel like, in order to avoid a lot of the backlash that (the University) had last fall, they have to make a really strong effort to get the vaccine to students, and to GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors) and staff in order to justify bringing people back to campus,” Manuel said. “I don’t know how I feel about it being mandatory, but I’m used to vaccines being mandatory, like in public schools.”

Several participants also addressed disparities in the health care system exposed by the pandemic, including the socioeconomic issues that lead to the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among Black Americans. 

Following the event, Williams said he felt the format provided people an effective outlet for their feelings on the vaccine and other health issues.

“The discussion-based type of event really does help a lot in regards to making people more comfortable and more knowledgeable about the vaccine,” Williams said. “It kind of gives people a space to come and talk about this issue on something that’s very prevalent and happening as we speak. I would hope that they walk away with more information.”

Daily Staff Reporter Dominic Coletti can be reached at dcoletti@umich.edu.

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