No longer just heartbreaking speculation, the fact that Black people have an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19 has now been proven. But despite our community being disproportionately affected by the virus, distrust surrounding the new COVID-19 vaccines runs high among us. Many Black doctors and scientists are coming forward, attempting to help educate those with questions about the vaccines and to fight the spread of misinformation—but reaching the masses will require more support. The need for this type of transparency is what led Los Angeles–based CNN correspondent Stephanie Elam to join an ongoing vaccine trial and to share her experience, as a Black woman, with the network’s broader audience.
Covering firsthand the human toll that the pandemic has taken in communities of color left Elam wanting to do even more. “One of the ways I felt that I could use my platform, and help people maybe trust the science, was to actually just stop talking about it and to actually prove it by getting a needle in my arm,” she says. In December, when a friend mentioned that a vaccine study was looking for participants of color, Elam knew right away she wanted to join. She participated in the third phase of a randomized COVID-19 trial on behalf of Janssen Vaccines & Prevention, a unit of Johnson & Johnson.
The decision to trust the science came easy for Elam, whose sister has a Ph.D. in health policy. Any doubts she might have had about the vaccine were quelled by the work she’d seen while covering the pandemic. “These vaccines are being rigorously tested, and they’re actually making it part of the duty of testing to include a diverse population,” she says. The study Elam is participating in involves over 40,000 people worldwide.
Make no mistake, Elam is acutely aware of the historical reasons why some Black people have reservations about taking the vaccine. “I understand why Black folks are afraid; I get it,” she says, referencing unethical studies like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which Black men with the disease were told they were receiving treatment when in fact they were not. Elam wasn’t surprised by the mixed reactions from friends when she told them about the trial, but she was heartened by how positive people were after her segment aired. “People were like, ‘This is so fantastic! This is such a great thing that you’re doing,’ ” she recalls.
Elam believes that not only is she setting an example, but she also could be helping the Black community to fight back against the devastation the pandemic has wrought. “When you look at what is happening and look at the numbers, there’s no question that COVID-19 hits us harder,” she says. “If that’s the case, would you rather go into this battle with a shield or without a shield? Because I’m gonna pick up the shield.” Elam won’t know whether she received the trial vaccine or a placebo until the study is complete, but she feels confident in having signed on to be a part of the solution: “I’m always going to be rooting for people, for Americans, for Black people to live long, fruitful lives,” she says. “I’m always going to be rooting for us all.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of ESSENCE