By Matthew Bennett
LSU Manship School
“It’s the flu to the twelfth power,” remarked Ivory Payne, a Baton Rouge publisher who is urging Black Louisianans to get COVID-19 vaccines.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Payne said, describing his own experience with the virus in early February. “I think the shortness of breath was the worst thing. It was a terrible experience.”
After his doctors told him to go home and quarantine for 14 days, Payne, 60, found that his fight against the respiratory illness had just begun. He said that after a difficult two weeks in isolation, his condition only
Payne described a litany of troubling COVID-19 symptoms, including not being able to smell or taste, body aches that prevented him from lifting everyday items and nausea. He spent three distressed weeks in the hospital, where he was forced to consider his chances of survival.
Payne is doing better now, but still has some fatigue as he cautiously returns to work as publisher of the BR Weekly Press, a newspaper for the Black community. His takeaway from his experience is the importance of vaccinations.
He wishes he had been eligible for a vaccine before he was hit by the virus, and he wants to urge Black residents to trust in the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
“I believe the African-American community has been hit the hardest, because of poor healthcare,” Payne said. “And just lack of education about the vaccine and the illness itself.”
As of April 26, Blacks accounted for 28 percent of COVID-19 vaccinations in Louisiana, while making up 32 percent of the population, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Whites accounted for 61 percent of vaccinations, while representing 62 percent of the population.
Notably, Black residents make up an alarming 39 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 in the state.
The Louisiana Department of Health released demographic breakdowns in early April showing that only 14 percent of
Central Louisiana residents were then fully vaccinated. Blacks in the region made up only 27 percent of those vaccinated, while whites made up more than 60 percent of that total.
The report noted that vaccination numbers for African Americans and other ethnic groups were behind in other health regions throughout the state as well.
A poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in late March found that 26 percent of white American adults, 24 percent of Black Americans adults and 22 percent of Hispanic American adults said they would probably not or definitely not get the vaccine. The statistic for Black Americans is down from a startling 65 percent in January.
Even with this improvement nationally, Payne would like to see Black leaders in Louisiana continue to get the word out to take the vaccine. He has been impressed by support for the vaccine from Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Broome, state Health Secretary Courtney Phillips and state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.
Payne said Black leaders need to continue urging people via TV and social media to take the vaccines.
“The African American church has got to be a key component in educating a lot of people,” he added. “The schools, I believe, are going to be important, too.”
Tasha Clark-Amar, chief executive of the Council on Aging in East Baton Rouge Parish, had a similar sentiment in convincing the older Black population to get vaccinated early on. She recalled sending out articles and news releases about Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American immunologist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine.
“Sometimes it’s good to see ‘us,’” Clark-Amar said. “Everyone has to be speaking the same message. It has to be in the same vein.”
“The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” is the most common historical malpractice referenced to point out why there is mistrust between the Black community and the medical field. The study occurred in 1932 and has “since been proven to be full of corruption and malpractice,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While some anecdotal evidence points to instances of misuse of medical authority, “modern medical practices and transparency point to COVID vaccines being safe and responsible,” according to an independent study appearing in the scientific journal “Advances in Therapy.”
Even though some doctors and nurses have expressed concerns about the COVID vaccines, Gregory Benton, an emergency medicine physician in Covington, is adamant about their safety, particularly the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna, which are made using a new messenger RNA technique.
Instead of using a dead or imitated sample of COVID-19 itself, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use synthetic mRNA, which instructs cells in the body to make specific spike proteins that trigger an immune response. This immune response results in antibodies that are suited to fight a natural COVID-19 infection.
“All in all, it’s an extremely safe way for your body to react to something,” Benton said. “When people aren’t taking it, they just don’t understand. There’s so much misinformation about the vaccines. People think you’re going to get sick from it, or you’re going to get the virus. It’s all just crazy talk.”
Federal authorities briefly suspended use of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine that works in a different way after a few reports of blood clotting but have since resumed its use.
Dr. Courtney Phillips, the state health secretary, believes that in looking at racial breakdowns for vaccination numbers, it’s important to see the whole picture.
“When you look at where the CDC stayed with the eligible groups, you have to look at what percentage of demographics fall into those groups,” Phillips said. “That’s a big portion that people don’t think about. You also have to look at lifespan. Who has a longer lifespan when you start to look at race categories.”
Phillips said that her agency would continue to work toward providing education and mass vaccination events in underserved communities. She believes that a lack of medical access is also a major hurdle for many minorities.
While about a third of the U.S. is now fully vaccinated, the next third is proving to be a much greater challenge. The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that national vaccination rates had dropped significantly for the first time since February, as the country saw an 11 percent decrease over a seven-day period. The country saw this decrease despite eligible groups expanding rapidly in recent weeks.
Having seen the worst side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ivory Payne is urging the public to find a way to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Payne took over as publisher of the BR Weekly Press after his father, Ivory J. Payne, 85, who founded the news service, retired in July 2020. Payne found it particularly difficult to deal with the uncertainty of his illness during a time when no visitation was granted at the hospital.
“When a family member gets ill, there is a ritual in my family that another family member stays in the hospital to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen next,” Payne said. “That was not the case with COVID. My dad was very concerned.”
Payne could only contact his wife, son and father with his cell phone or with the help of hospital employees when he felt well enough to talk. He even recalled contemplating what his last words would be, if his time had come.