The power of example

April 23, 2021
Dr. James Tolley (left) and Dr. Marvella Ford (right), co-directors of the Black Faculty Group at MUSC
Dr. James Tolley (left) and Dr. Marvella Ford (right), co-directors of the MUSC Black Faculty Group. Photograph by Sarah Pack.

"Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
– Albert Schweitzer, theologian, physician, humanitarian

Gregory A. McCord, Ed.D.superintendent of the Marlboro County School District, a county in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region where the population is more than half Black, knew he had a problem. Many of his teachers were reluctant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

He understood why – trust in medicine and science had been eroded by past abuses, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which never offered penicillin to its Black participants, even after the antibiotic was found to treat the disease effectively.

Dr. Gregory McCord, superintendent of the Marlboro County School District 
Dr. Gregory McCord getting his vaccine.

But he also knew that medicine had since instituted many safeguards to protect research participants, such as the inclusion of 10,000 people of color who participated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials, and that the highly effective vaccine was sorely needed by his hard-hit community.

 If he was going to succeed in getting his teachers to trust the vaccine, he would need to lead by example.

McCord turned to Marvella Ford, Ph.D., and James Tolley, M.D., co-directors of the Black Faculty Group at MUSC, for help. Ford is the associate Director of Cancer Disparities at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and the Endowed Chair in Prostate Cancer Disparities at South Carolina State University, and Tolley retired in 2019 after 25 years serving as an MUSC faculty member and 12 years as the director of the Emergency Department at the Charleston Memorial Hospital. Both were well-acquainted with the distrust of science and medicine felt by some people of color.

“Distrust has evolved from not having enough folks of color taking care of folks of color,” said Tolley.

Ford and Tolley worked with Sheila Champlin, chief communications and marketing officer at MUSC, to arrange for a photo of McCord getting vaccinated. That photograph and the power of McCord’s example led to an increase of 50% in the number of teachers in his county willing to be vaccinated.

Improving vaccination rates for communities of color is critical, Ford explained. “People of color are at high risk of getting COVID-19, going to the hospital and dying of COVID-19,” she said. Blacks are almost three times as likely to be hospitalized as whites and almost twice as likely to die. Latinos and those of Hispanic descent are more than three times as likely to be hospitalized as whites, and 2.3 times more likely to die. 

Table showing COVID-19 risks by race
Courtesy of Dr. Marvella Ford and Danielle Hutchison

COVID has hit these communities hard, in part because people of color are often essential workers, whose jobs put them at a high risk of exposure, and because they do not always have good access to health care. “Folks of color are more likely to be employed in those types of situations where they are exposed more, and they may not be as privileged as others to have health care,” said Tolley.

Ford and Tolley wanted to draw on the growing number of MUSC faculty of color to set an example by getting the vaccine themselves and encouraging communities of color to do so as well.  The MUSC Black Faculty Group joined with the Hispanic/Latino Faculty Group to issue a release in January in support of the COVID-19 vaccines.

"The sooner that we all become vaccinated, the sooner we can all protect each other and get back to a sense of normalcy with our families.” -- Dr. James Tolley

Among those lending their support to the release were Nicholas Shingu, M.D.; Ayaba Logan;  Mileka Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.Ruth Adekunle, M.D.; Gayenell Magwood, Ph.D.; Latecia Abraham-Hilaire, DHA;  and Monique Hill of the Black Faculty Group and Michael de Arellano, Ph.D., who leads the Hispanic/Latino Faculty Group.

Dr. Michael De Arellano 
Dr. Michael de Arellano, director of the Hispanic/Latino Faculty Group

But they aren’t stopping there. Members of the two groups are visiting virtually with churches, neighborhood associations, community groups and sororities and fraternities to discuss the importance of vaccination.

“We go to church in the community. We are the community,” said Ford. “As Black and Latino faculty, we want to be a resource to other community members, and so we meet with them, and we answer their questions. After the meetings, many attendees want to become ambassadors to encourage other people to get the vaccine.”

"Trust is definitely a critical issue,” said de Arellano. “Research has found that patients are more likely to trust and engage in treatment when their providers have similar backgrounds, including similar racial or ethnic backgrounds. Patients can feel better understood and trust that  their medical provider is looking out for their best interests, which is now critical to dispel any sort of concerns and to provide corrective information regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.”

They have also created a flyer identifying 10 key reasons communities of color should get the vaccine and providing information on vaccination sites that they share with community members.

“We have to think about children, about parents and grandparents who may live with us in our households and other community members. This is not just about us. We have to think about protecting other people around us and the vaccine can help to do that.” -- Dr. Marvella Ford

At these events, the faculty members help to dispel community members’ fears about the vaccine. They assure them that the vaccine has no COVID in it, and so it can’t give them the infection. They explain that the vaccine was able to be created so quickly not because corners were cut but because the government made huge investments in the vaccine, and a large number of patients were willing to enroll in the trials. They further explain that difficulty in enrolling patients can slow down trials and delay novel therapies from reaching the clinic.

Community ambassadors can also help establish trust in the vaccine and counter misinformation with fact.

Vaccine trial participant Argentino Calvo 
Vaccine trial participant Argentino Calvo

Argentino Calvo, a retired firefighter and paramedic, participated in one of the vaccine clinical trials and serves as a community ambassador for the vaccine in the local Hispanic community.

“Being a firefighter and paramedic, you tend to become a leader of the community, a face of the community,” said Calvo. “So I get a lot of phone calls from people in the Hispanic community about questions and concerns. I try to encourage them. I tell them that I am in a vaccine trial because I believe it can do good. I tell them my family members in America and in South America are taking the vaccine. I try to give them a little more confidence about the vaccines.”

Another vaccine trial participant, Gullah Geechee sweetgrass artist and caretaker Warren Marcus, who prides himself on his bluntness, doesn’t mince words when trying to persuade people in his community to get the vaccine.

“All lives matter, but if you are going to walk around protesting that black lives matter, then show that black lives matter by going to get vaccinated.”

"We had a number of Latino friends who had COVID, and several of them died. I’m so thankful that we now have the vaccines.” -- Argentino Calvo, retired firefighter/paramedic and vaccine trial participant

It is also important to let the communities of color know that those who are vaccinated can experience mild side effects, such as headaches, fatigue and muscle aches, which pass quickly.

“People sometimes get scared when they experience the mild side effects,” said Calvo. “I tell them, no, don’t worry, that’s normal. You might have flu-like symptoms for 24 hours, and then you will feel better. And then you’ll be protected from COVID. We had a number of Latino friends who had COVID, and several of them died. I’m so thankful that we now have the vaccines.”

“The sooner that we all become vaccinated, the sooner we can all protect each other and get back to a sense of normalcy with our families,” said Tolley.

“Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will help to protect each of us and our families and our communities,” said Ford. “We have to think about children, about parents and grandparents who may live with us in our households and other community members. This is not just about us. We have to think about protecting other people around us and the vaccine can help to do that.”

How to get the vaccine

  • Schedule an appointment using MyChart, the MUSC Health patient portal, at https://muschealth.org/vaccine-scheduling. For those without internet access or MyChart, please call the COVID support line at 843-876-7227. MUSC Health is scheduling appointments in the Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Chester, Lancaster, and Marion areas.
  • Check for upcoming locations for the Fetter Health Care Network’s mobile vaccination clinics at http://fettercovid19screening.org. These clinics do not require an appointment or preregistration. Staff will register those seeking vaccines onsite on the day of the vaccination clinic.
  • Use the vaccine locator (https://vaxlocator.dhec.sc.gov/) provided by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC). Or you can also call SCDHEC’s vaccine information line at 1-866-365-8110.

Next scheduled mobile vaccination event via Fetter Health Care Network

Thursday, April 29. First Baptist Church, 121 Brewer Road, Summerville, SC 29483, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. (Moderna-dose 1)

About the Author

Kimberly McGhee

Keywords: COVID-19