Black MN doctors on COVID-19 vaccine: ‘the benefits outweigh the risks’

Drs. Nathan Chomilo, Omobosola Akinsete, Zeke McKinney
Submitted photos (l-r) Dr. Nathan Chomilo, Dr. Omobosola O. Akinsete and Dr. Zeke McKinney

Communities of color continue to face disparity rates for not only contracting the virus but surviving it. African Americans in the U.S. are nearly three times as likely to die than their White counterparts, according to a National Urban League report.

However, as a projected 20 million doses of recently approved vaccines roll out across the country, many are questioning if they should even take it. Even in the midst of deaths and long-term recovery from the virus, many have questions regarding the new vaccine’s safety and efficacy. The MSR Forefront recently spoke with three Black medical physicians to address these concerns.

“Brown and Black people are disproportionately affected by this virus, either by getting sick or from the effects of somebody in their family being sick and dying,” said Dr. Omobosola O. Akinsete, who serves as department chair of Infectious Disease for HealthPartners and sits on HeathPartners’ expert panel on COVID-19 treatment and research, during the live roundtable hosted on Dec. 29, 2020.

The disparities, however, are not genetic. 

“Let’s dispel the myth that, biologically, Black folks are different. That’s not true,” said Dr. Zeke McKinney, occupational medicine specialist for HealthPartners and principal investigator of a third vaccine currently in development by HealthPartners and AstraZeneca. He said the disparities are extensions of existing social determinants of health. “All of the things that surround a person and their life that affect their health… housing, education, access to healthcare, access to insurance, access to safe employment.”

Given these disparities, the doctors shared that the best treatment is prevention. This includes the standard reminders to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands, and avoid large groups.  

To be even safer, they recommend getting the vaccine when it becomes readily available. The currently approved vaccines require two doses, with a second administered three to four weeks after the first dose. Drs. Akinsete and McKinney have both taken the first dose and are awaiting the second. 

Dr. Nathan Chomilo, medical director for Medicaid & MinnesotaCare Minnesota Department of Human Services, said he is a part of the trial that Dr. McKinney heads.

All three doctors took it with no hesitation, reporting minimal symptoms such as soreness in the arm and slight fatigue, which they say is normal.

“The risk of COVID is a lot worse than the risk of the vaccine,” said Dr. Akinsete. “I’ve had COVID myself. If I have to choose between COVID and the vaccine, I choose the vaccine in a heartbeat.”  

Their focus now is to help educate communities about the vaccines. 

“We need to have a lot of conversations and really be welcoming to questions and concerns and share our own experiences,” said Chomilo. “I also was concerned about how fast it was going. I was concerned about the newer technology,” he added. “I had to educate myself first…talk to local experts that I trusted. That helped me arrive at a place where I wholeheartedly agree that the risk of COVID is so much greater than the risk of the vaccine.”

The doctors also explained the speed of vaccine development is due to unprecedented amounts of funding being allotted to research and the number of people who have already been infected. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines also take advantage of existing research.

“They have been working on it for over 10 years already,” said Dr. Akinsete. And, she said, communities of color are receiving the same trials and vaccines. “I’ve had questions,” she said, “asking, ‘what if they give you one and they give somebody who is White another one?’ That is not going to happen. They are giving everybody the same vaccine.”

While vaccine developments have been fast-paced, there is still ongoing research into how long it takes after dosage to actually become immune, how long it will last, and the effectiveness of not being able to pass it to other folks.

Those answers, Dr. McKinney said, are still on a “wait-and-see” timetable. They hope to learn more in the coming months.  In the meantime, he and his fellow physicians will continue using their positions and platforms to represent their communities. 

“One of the reasons why I wanted to be part of this [trial] is so I could speak to Black people and to communities of color and say look, ‘I am one of the people in charge of this. If something was going wrong, I would be the first person out there blowing the whistle, making a big deal about it, because I am not going to put my name on something that isn’t going to be safe. And, I’m not going to participate in research that isn’t being done to the highest scientific standards and rigor.’”

Press play below to watch the full conversation: