Howard University Hospital CEO OK with 'taking the heat to save a life'

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Anita Jenkins, the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Howard University Hospital, has been fighting tirelessly to inform vaccine-hesitant Americans in her community the shot is safe, even at the risk of being called a sellout by some community members.

As COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Black community, she feels "even more passionate to tell the truth and to stand up for what can save us," she told Becker's

Ms. Jenkins was the first person to get the shot at her hospital in a move she hoped would send a clear message to her staff and community on just how safe the COVID-19 vaccine is. The hospital is the only teaching hospital in the nation at a historically Black university, and most of its patients are Black.

"If we're able to convince one person, one person could protect 30 people," Ms. Jenkins said. "So I haven't lost my grit to keep telling that story."

More than seven months after she publicly got the vaccine, she still has not lost her strength to keep sharing how safe COVID-19 vaccines are.

In local Facebook groups, Ms. Jenkins answers hundreds of questions about the safety of the vaccine, particularly for Black Americans. Not all of the community feedback is positive. In one example that comes to mind, a man called her a sellout to her community.

"As a leader of a hospital, I must take the heat to save a life to tell that story," Ms. Jenkins said. "And we're not done telling it."

However, many of the concerns expressed by Black Americans are very valid questions, she said. Some people are unsure if the vaccine was tested on Black people or if there is a possibility it's a repeat of the Tuskegee study.

The 40-year study in Tuskegee, Ala., examined the effects of untreated syphilis in Black Americans, without informing participants they were being experimented on. The unethical study that launched in 1932 would create medical mistrust in the Black community for nearly a century to follow. 

To alleviate concerns that the push for vaccinations is not another experiment, Ms. Jenkins affirms how horrific Tuskegee was to the Black community, "but this is a worldwide pandemic with a worldwide cure. It has nothing to do with Tuskegee."

Another common concern is that the vaccines were not tested on Black Americans. 

"Depending on what company, 10 percent or more were African American volunteers for the vaccine," Ms. Jenkins said. "That's really wonderful because so many medications, and this is why we have mistrust in the Black community, don't at all."

Her recipe for changing minds in social media posts is a mix of her sharing her perspective, adding a link to learn more information and being completely transparent. When she hears concerns about the side effects of the vaccine, she tells people the discomforts she encountered.

She has also encountered some backlash from the faith-based community, but it's uncommon.

Some say "you don't have faith, because you're not praying about this," Ms. Jenkins said. "But I have been so pleasantly surprised to talk with the faith community. [Some people] were getting their information from the wrong sources. But when they heard it from someone who cares about their own people, when they heard it from someone who looks like them, it seemed to make a difference."

To any other hospital CEO who is encountering backlash from the community for supporting vaccines, Ms. Jenkins said she wants to "wrap [her] arms around them as [she] would want them to wrap their arms around [her] and to say we are in this for a reason."

"Please hang in there with me," she said. "Please keep fighting the fight. We will get over this and we will win through this. Never in a time have the mistruths been so readily available. So I say let's keep fighting."

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