My running joke for the past several months when asked if I’m worried about the possible side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine has been, “If the side effects are that I might grow an extra arm out of my forehead, that’s just a risk I’m willing to take to get my life back.” Though a joke, the sentiment is not too far from the truth.
Being a Black health care worker who has worked throughout the entire pandemic helping clients of many gender identities, races, and risk factors access HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and treatment, I was fortunate to be among the first eligible to be vaccinated. So, once the U.S. COVID-19 vaccines and distribution processes were approved last month, deciding to get my first of two doses was no challenge. My mind had been made up for quite a while.
As I had done six years ago after being prescribed my first bottle of PrEP, on Jan. 7, I instantly took to Facebook to share that I had received the first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. My goal in sharing on social media: to bring awareness. I updated my friends on the experience, informing them of how easy the process was. I signed up online with our local health department here in the Greater Atlanta area and was administered the vaccine in my driver’s-side arm via a drive-through set up at a nearby church, without ever leaving my car. I also shared about my side effects the next day, which were very mild and included slight fatigue and soreness at the injection site.
Sharing my firsthand account of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine was of the utmost importance to me, given that many of my peers and fellow community members remain skeptical about the vaccine, and many are outright refusing to get it—and for good reason.
The Black community has long-running, ongoing experience with being betrayed by medical institutions, while at the same time being disproportionately impacted by various health issues, including HIV—and now COVID-19. As both a PrEP advocate and social worker, I have spent many years engaged in nuanced, validating conversations with clients, community members, and other advocates about medical mistrust, specifically as it impacts my community’s embrace of biomedical HIV prevention tools, such as PrEP and undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U).
As has been the case with PrEP advocacy, I have accepted that no amount of information presented will comprehensively address the well-deserved mistrust of our medical systems, especially as we are seeing and reading stories of neglect, implicit bias, and stigma towards Black and Brown individuals seeking medical help after acquiring COVID-19. And as critical and lifesaving as the vaccines are, I cannot invalidate people’s concerns or promise the complete safety of long-term outcomes.
Opting to be Among the First in Line
You may be asking why, if there are valid concerns about safety, did I opt to be among those first in line to get the COVID-19 vaccine? For the same reasons that I was an early adopter of PrEP. While vastly different viruses, HIV and COVID-19 have both taken a huge toll on my community. The viruses have not only impacted our physical health, but both viruses have hugely impacted our communities’ mental and emotional health. Both have taken away from us those whom we love and care for deeply in our families and communities, and in many cases, without allowing for proper goodbyes. Both have changed how we embrace and navigate love, intimacy, community, and companionship. And both have subjected us to personal shame, stigma, and blame, all the while serving to remind us that systematic and political failures are largely at fault for the viruses’ devastating impact on our communities to begin with.
While, like condoms and abstinence with HIV, we have tools such as social distancing and mask wearing, changed behavior without access to efficient biomedical tools will not totally shield us from one of the deadliest viruses of modern times. Eliminating the natural ways we love and embrace one another is simply not sustainable to reducing our lifelong risks of acquiring COVID-19—the HIV epidemic has already taught us that.
Choosing the Vaccine for My Community
I would be dishonest if I said I was not skeptical and even fearful of the COVID-19 vaccine. But despite my own fears and mistrust, I chose the vaccine because the threat to myself and my community of not getting vaccinated would very likely be much more devastating, especially as COVID-19 rates continue soaring higher than we have seen throughout the entire pandemic.
Like so many others, I’m longing to visit my family more frequently, hang out with my friends, travel, see my coworkers outside of a Zoom video, and go out to eat and drink, all without the anxiety that each instance of socialization is potentially threatening the health and well-being of people that I love. Just as PrEP has allowed me to embrace love and intimacy during the HIV epidemic in ways that I thought would never be possible, I would urge my community to, in that same way, embrace the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is integral to us all being safely together again.