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CA Surgeon General discusses COVID-19 in Black community

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. (307406)
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. Credit: Michael Winokur

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has dedicated her life to health equity. That’s why Burke Harris was excited to be appointed California’s first Surgeon General in January 2019. She’s the state’s chief medical officer. It’s a role she cherishes because she knows that Black and Brown people face exacerbating health disparities. Issues like access to healthcare have been put on full display during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Now she’s focused on equitable vaccine distribution to fight the coronavirus.

“The fastest way for us to put the pandemic behind us is for everyone to get vaccinated,” shared Burke Harris during a one-on-one interview with Our Weekly on Aug. 6. “But what we see is Black Californians have a lower rate of vaccination and that’s something for me that is important to speak directly to our community. To have those conversations.”

State leaders are focused on the Delta variant, which researchers said is up to 60 percent more contagious than previous variants. With a new school year on the horizon, Burke Harris said it is extremely important children 12 and older be vaccinated.

“As a mom of four kids, we want our kids back in school safely. It is critically important,” Burke Harris said.

Meanwhile, the surgeon general is not shy when it comes to talking about what California has done to fight the coronavirus. She said the state has required its workers to either show proof of vaccination or be tested on a regular weekly or biweekly basis.

“The whole purpose of that is to protect the public and also to protect the people that we work with,” Burke Harris added.

She stopped short of calling for a vaccination mandate. However, she is strongly encouraging every employer to have a strong policy that requires people to either show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly to make sure that workplaces are safe.

California has administered 44 million vaccine doses, the highest total in the nation. But the state also has the most people. Specifically, that equates to the fact that nearly 70 percent of the entire population has been fully vaccinated, which ranks fourth out of 50 states by percentage. However, disparities have continued. Comparatively, only about 50 percent of California’s Black population has been fully vaccinated.

However, when talking to unvaccinated people, Burke Harris said it is important to listen because everyone has a different reason for not yet being vaccinated.

“One thing that is a big concern for me is that the more people that are unvaccinated, the more of an opportunity this virus has to replicate and when this virus replicates it can mutate,” said Burke Harris. “So the greater number of unvaccinated people, the greater the opportunity for a mutation to happen that our current vaccines are ineffective against.

“There’s also a lot of misinformation out there… Go to a reputable source like the CDC and be open to having that conversation with our friends and our loved ones.”

Burke Harris said there are also layered elements of COVID fatigue: “I also think that there are some people who feel like everyone else is vaccinated, why do i need to get vaccinated.”

Health advocates recognize the history of mistrust in the Black community, so it is important to patiently communicate the message that all three COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

“We are going to keep (getting the message out there) until we have equal protection for our Black and Brown communities as we do for everybody else,” Burke Harris continued. “One of the things that I’m really hopeful about is that we’ve seen very recently since the Delta variant has made a strong emergence in California, for the first time since April we have seen a small uptick in our vaccination rate and that uptick was greatest amongst our African-American community.”

Burke Harris is hopeful that the Black community will continue to see an increase in the number of people vaccinated in the coming weeks. She doesn’t want to see California backtrack into economic restrictions.

“That’s what we’re trying to prevent. That’s why everybody needs to get vaccinated,” shared Burke Harris. “We have to kill this virus dead. We have to give it no place to hide. We have to make sure that everyone is vaccinated, so that it does not come back.”