Published on Jan 11, 2021

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, and you're watching Coronavirus in Context. We've been talking all day about vaccines. Well remember, vaccines don't work if people don't take them. And there's some hesitancy among different communities about the vaccine.

So to help provide some insights, I've asked my friend, Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey, the Executive Director of the COSHAR Healthy Communities Foundation. Dr. Allison-Ottey, thanks for joining me.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Thank you for having me. Really love the work that you're doing.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's get right at it. You've been talking about vaccine hesitancy, particularly in communities of color. Can you talk about what your latest research is showing?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Well, we have conducted the largest study of particularly African-American/Blacks in this country on COVID attitudes, but also the vaccine. And it really was very alarming, with over 94%, and we'd surveyed about 3,100 validated studies in a scientific manner, saying I don't want the vaccine, or I may or may not take the vaccine, et cetera. And that, as a person that's worked in health disparities now for decades, is so troubling to me. We have a flu vaccine campaign, HPV vaccine, all of these vaccine campaigns. And now, with the greatest pandemic of certainly my lifetime, this community needs to jump on board.

JOHN WHYTE: What's so frustrating, I would imagine, here we have a disease, COVID-19, that is disproportionately impacting people of color. We have a vaccine strategy to protect people, yet those that are most at risk are saying, hey, wait. I want more information. What more information do folks need? Help us think it through in how we can get more people on board.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: There must be information from trusted resources. And that's why, at the foundation, we are engaging our churches, our community leaders, certainly social and civic leaders to say, hey, this is safe. But also, we are highlighting what you and I both have talked about for decades, that for one of the first times in history, the most diverse panel of clinical trial participants are in this trial. And after all of that work, saying that this has been tested in people that look like you to a larger degree, this is safe, but more importantly, you could save a life, that has to be communicated.

And we need to break it down to the basics. Vaccines save lives. We're in a pandemic. You not only want to protect yourself, you want to protect your grandmother, your mother, your kids, your whole entire family, and we must do this as a nation.

JOHN WHYTE: Are you seeing generational issues? When I talk to older patients, people of color, they'll talk about Tuskegee and mention it. But when you talk about Tuskegee to a younger population, they'll think you're talking about the Airmen.


JOHN WHYTE: They're not--

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: It's bad. It's bad.

JOHN WHYTE: --really aware--

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Learned this in school.

JOHN WHYTE: --of the issues around syphilis. Right. So what are the generational issues we're seeing in terms of vaccine confidence and vaccine acceptance?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: You know, I've always liked to keep it straight, and I keep it straight when I talk to anyone. When we go back to the Tuskegee Experiment, and unfortunately, I've seen a lot of misnomers and misinformation even about that, as it's now coming back to the forefront, but this generation and the millennials and even younger generations, they talk about just distrust of government. That it's too fast, and we're going to be guinea pigs and all of that, and why do I want to inject something foreign into my body?

Now, mind you, as I keep it real all the time, this same generation will say, I don't want to inject anything or smo-- take anything. But we have legalized pot. We have the chicken sandwich with the 1,000 calories. We have processed food and all of that.

And I break it down honestly, John, to that level, and say, wait a minute. Well, if that's the case, are you following this in every aspect of your life? And the other part that is hitting home with particularly my 20- and 30-year-olds, and I just did a webinar recently, is when I go over and say, this is what a clinical trial is. This is what had to happen. And these are the structures by which a vaccine can come through. Not one person, but panels and panels of persons and the safety issue.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell us how you, as a woman of color, not as a doctor, but a woman of color, a mom, is evaluating the risk versus benefit in terms of whether or not you're going to get the vaccine. Can you walk us through that calculation that you personally are making, that our viewers can relate to?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: The biggest thing I can say to anyone is, I have an 80-year-old mother, soon to be 81. And she asked me well, what about this vaccine? I said, mommy, the first date it's available that I can get you in--


SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: --you're getting vaccinated.


SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Why? Because my mother is 80 years old with some hypertension in North Carolina, where there is iffy mask-wearing, major health problems as far as perceptions about the virus, and I want to protect her at all costs. It's the same reason I wasn't there at Thanksgiving or Christmas or any of the major holidays. I want to protect her.

Why is it important? We are in the greatest crisis of our lifetime. What can we do? We know we can do the things that we talk about, but now, we have another tool in the toolbox.

For me, making those decisions is easy because I read the data. I am very adept to understanding the clinical trial. But also, I am a voice, fortunately, for this country that is trusted, that can say no. This is safe, and this is something we must do.

JOHN WHYTE: What's been striking about the data? Is it the number of people, the outcomes, the numerous studies? What's particularly struck you about the data?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: If we talk about the Pfizer, Moderna vaccine. 94%, above 90% of any vaccination having efficacy rates. You and I both know that is off the charts. The efficacy data is what has sold me.

JOHN WHYTE: What happens, Sharon, if we have a large percentage of Caucasians being vaccinated and then a very small percentage of people of color? And we still have a lot of virus around. What's the outcome there? We know what it is.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: We know what it is. And again, for you have done a lot of work in health disparities, I've done a lot of work in health disparities, certain organizations that I'm part of and other influential persons, it is heartbreaking to me that after all of this time saying, we are at risk more. Get to the front of the line. Get to-- finally you're at the front of the line, and you say, I'm skeptical. I don't want to be at the front of the line, necessarily. I want to see how this works out.

And as a result, our parents, our grandparents, our families suffer more because of hesitancy when we don't see this hesitancy in other areas of our lives. And so I am really-- and the foundation has a national campaign going full-fledged to say vaccines save lives. Not only do it for yourself, but do it for your family and so that we can get some of these restrictions lifted. You can't complain about the restrictions and sit at home and chant Kumbayah saying, I'm going to wait on something else or take an herb to try to protect myself.

JOHN WHYTE: One of the things we've been talking about on this show is the low number of people of color in medical school to become physicians and other health professions. Can we take a moment and hear about your journey into medical school and becoming a physician? Was it something that you had always dreamed of? Was it something you saw in other family members? What has been Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey's pathway and journey to medicine?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: I have a cute, quick story. My father, God rest his soul, we had in our hallway all the Britannicas, and people don't even know about them.

JOHN WHYTE: Encyclopedias.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: But all displayed--

JOHN WHYTE: They don't know.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: They don't know. And I was always kind of nerdy and reading them. And as a young girl, I had issues with fainting and feeling lightheaded. And I'm talking about before being 10 years old, about 6 to 7.

So I had a relationship with Dr. Baker, my local pediatrician in my small town of Kannapolis, North Carolina. Dr. Baker was a Caucasian younger man, now I see it as younger, that was a great pediatrician that I secretly probably had a little crush on. And I just was fascinated. And I would go in for tests and all this.

And at the time, I remember once he said, well, this could be sickle cell anemia. And my little smart self went and got the Brittanica out and looked up sickle cell and the time. You died by the time you were 20. And I come from a faith family, so I was praying to God, asking for forgiveness for all the evil I'd done to my brothers, and eating liver, thinking that I could overcome this. And fortunately, I did not have sickle cell. But that started it.

My daddy would say that he bought me a huge ABC book, and A was for apple and Adam, a bunch of stuff, and D was for dog, doctor. And I looked at it and said, doctor, like Dr. Baker. That's what I'm going to be. I've never known that I wanted to be anything else. But he used to tell that story. And I was about seven when he told that story.

JOHN WHYTE: And did you face struggles, bias, discrimination along the way?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Oh, definitely. I am from small town Kannapolis, North Carolina, which I love. But I remember on career day, and I've talked about this publicly, on career day, I was always in advanced classes and all of that, which meant that there was one Black girl and one Black boy in the advanced classes. And we were on an accelerated path. And I remember for career day standing up with my great presentation saying, I'm going to be a doctor.

And I remember one of my classmates who was my friend said, well no. You can't be a doctor. My daddy says, and she said the n-word, can't be doctors. And I was crushed for about two seconds until I went home.

My dad got off work, and I was so sad, and I said, daddy, this is what-- and he came in in his usual way and said, prove her wrong. Why are you upset? Prove her wrong. And fortunately, 20 years later, I did.

JOHN WHYTE: You did. You did just that.


JOHN WHYTE: Proved her wrong.

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: I proved her wrong and got an award for being the most successful high school grad-- blah blah, blah. And I remember her telling people we were best friends.

JOHN WHYTE: What a terrific story. What final words do you want to leave our viewers to give them maybe a little more confidence in vaccination for COVID?

SHARON ALLISON-OTTEY: Vaccinations across the board work. So we want you to be vaccinated. And we know African-Americans have lower vaccination rates in everything, tetanus boost, HPV, flu, all of that.

But now, as we face this crisis, I want to say that we must trust the scientists and the doctors. Trust resources in your community. Trust national spokespersons. Trust organizations that represent people as well as doctors.

And as we look at frontline workers, do you think that mom that is a physician that may be an MD, PhD that has a family member, do you think she's going to sit down and take a vaccine and risk her family? Risk their health? And so follow their lead, and talk to your physician or someone you trust. And then you become a spokesperson.

We know that in minority communities it takes word of mouth in particular. And I did it. I'm fine. You do it, you'll be fine, so that we can get the protection we need.

This is not just something political. It's not political at all. It's about your health and your wellness and the wellness of this nation. It's your duty to protect, to wear a mask, to follow the guidelines, but also your duty to protect your fellow man. And we do that with vaccinations.

JOHN WHYTE: Protect our fellow men and women.


JOHN WHYTE: Well, thank you, Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey, for your insights today, for all that you're doing to promote health and eliminate disparities across the board, not just as it relates to COVID, but something that you and I have been talking about for 20 years. Appreciate your insights today.


JOHN WHYTE: And if you have questions about COVID-19, and we want your questions, we want you to ask questions, send them our way. You can send them to [email protected] as well as post on our social properties, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Thanks for watching.