Can Tyler Perry assuage distrust among Black Americans who are skeptical about the Covid-19 vaccine?
With the pandemic exposing racial disparities in the United States — Black people have died of Covid-19 at nearly three times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — health officials have been working to promote vaccinations in Black communities, and to combat doubt.
When doctors in Atlanta asked Perry — a popular and prolific actor, director and studio head — to spread the word to Black audiences that the vaccine was harmless, he agreed to interview the experts about the subject, turning it into a half-hour TV special that aired Thursday night on BET. On the show, he peppered doctors from Grady Health System with questions about the safety of the vaccine, how it was developed, how it was tested and how it works. At the end of the interview, satisfied with their responses and with his sleeve pulled up, Perry got the jab as cameras rolled.
“You going to give me the shot?” he asked one of the doctors.
“Done,” the doctor replied.
“You’re finished?” Perry asked, and then gave a thumbs up. “I didn’t feel it. There you go. I got the vaccine. Here we go.”
In turning to Perry, they enlisted one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. He was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2020 by Time magazine, and his net worth, according to Forbes, easily tops $1 billion. Perry, who is 51, built his fortune portraying the wildly-popular character of Madea, a tart-tongued and irreverent matriarch, onstage and onscreen, before retiring her in 2019 to concentrate on his numerous other projects, which include running his 330-acre studios in Georgia.
Having a celebrity stump for vaccines is not new. In 1956, at the behest of health officials, Elvis Presley received his polio vaccine in front of press photographers backstage at “The Ed Sullivan Show” to help overcome public suspicion about the vaccine.
And in 1986, the author Roald Dahl wrote a letter recounting the death of his 7-year old daughter, Olivia, from measles in 1962, before a reliable vaccine was available, urging parents to get their children vaccinated. “It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunized,” Dahl wrote.
Skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccine among Black people has been deeply concerning to health officials. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in three Black people was hesitant about vaccine — making them one of the groups most reluctant to get it, along with Republicans, rural residents and people in their 30s and 40s. A recent CNN analysis found that Black and Latino Americans were getting the vaccine at significantly lower rates than white people. The lopsided rates have been attributed to, among other factors, lack of access to health care for many Black people, but also to an entrenched mistrust about the medical establishment.
On the BET special, Perry spoke of several infamous episodes in history that have led to a lack of faith in the medical establishment and the government, among them the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which doctors deliberately allowed syphilis to progress in Black men by withholding treatment from them, and the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, whose cells were used in research without her knowledge or consent.
“We as Black people have healthy hesitation when it comes to vaccinations and so on and so forth, and even disease,” he said. He also mentioned misgivings about Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s initiative to quickly develop and distribute a vaccine.
Currently more than 150 million people — almost half the population — are eligible to be vaccinated. But each state makes the final decision about who goes first. The nation’s 21 million health care workers and three million residents of long-term care facilities were the first to qualify. In mid-January, federal officials urged all states to open up eligibility to everyone 65 and older and to adults of any age with medical conditions that put them at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19. Adults in the general population are at the back of the line. If federal and state health officials can clear up bottlenecks in vaccine distribution, everyone 16 and older will become eligible as early as this spring or early summer. The vaccine hasn’t been approved in children, although studies are underway. It may be months before a vaccine is available for anyone under the age of 16. Go to your state health website for up-to-date information on vaccination policies in your area
You should not have to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine, although you will be asked for insurance information. If you don’t have insurance, you should still be given the vaccine at no charge. Congress passed legislation this spring that bars insurers from applying any cost sharing, such as a co-payment or deductible. It layered on additional protections barring pharmacies, doctors and hospitals from billing patients, including those who are uninsured. Even so, health experts do worry that patients might stumble into loopholes that leave them vulnerable to surprise bills. This could happen to those who are charged a doctor visit fee along with their vaccine, or Americans who have certain types of health coverage that do not fall under the new rules. If you get your vaccine from a doctor’s office or urgent care clinic, talk to them about potential hidden charges. To be sure you won’t get a surprise bill, the best bet is to get your vaccine at a health department vaccination site or a local pharmacy once the shots become more widely available.
That is to be determined. It’s possible that Covid-19 vaccinations will become an annual event, just like the flu shot. Or it may be that the benefits of the vaccine last longer than a year. We have to wait to see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. To determine this, researchers are going to be tracking vaccinated people to look for “breakthrough cases” — those people who get sick with Covid-19 despite vaccination. That is a sign of weakening protection and will give researchers clues about how long the vaccine lasts. They will also be monitoring levels of antibodies and T cells in the blood of vaccinated people to determine whether and when a booster shot might be needed. It’s conceivable that people may need boosters every few months, once a year or only every few years. It’s just a matter of waiting for the data.
Perry said he didn’t want people getting vaccinated just because he had. “What I want to do is give you the information, the facts,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
In the interview, the health specialists, Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory School of Medicine at Grady Health System, and Dr. Kimberly D. Manning, a professor of medicine there, said that people ought to get vaccinated not just for themselves, but to help others. “Start individual, and move into thinking about, ‘Who do I care about, who do I want to protect?”’ Dr. Manning said. “I keep saying, ‘This is about us.’”
Earlier this week, when Gayle King interviewed Perry on CBS This Morning, she said that his getting vaccinated would certainly send a strong message. But she wondered if his alter ego could boost the efforts too.
“Listen, I know Madea is retired,” King said, “But if there ever was a time for Madea to weigh in on this subject, seems like she would have something to say.”
Mr. Perry grinned, dipped his head and replied in Madea’s whinny of a voice.
“I’m getting that damn vaccine, I’m getting that damn vaccine,” he sang, and then broke into a laugh.
“That’s the thing,” said King, “People believe Madea, because Madea always speaks the truth.”