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Dr. Anthony Fauci pays an online house call

Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston hears from one of the most trusted voices in medicine

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anthony Fauci

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s preeminent voice on infectious diseases, paid a house call via Zoom Tuesday evening on Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston, dispensing 30 minutes of wisdom and encouragement to a crowd of up to 2,300 registered viewers.

Interviewing Fauci were the Rev. Liz Walker, the pastor at Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a former Boston television news anchor, and the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston and a pediatrician whose practice also includes palliative care.

The hosts’ first order of business was to take a poll among viewers: if a COVID-19 vaccine were available today, would you take it? Sixty-six percent said yes and 34% said no. How, Fauci was asked, do you change the minds of those who said no?

The Rev. Liz Walker is pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston.

Find out the reason they are reluctant, said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Is it their distrust of the medical establishment because of its history of abuse of the African American community, going back to the Tuskegee Study and beyond? Is it related to the speed with which the vaccines are being developed? Or perhaps it’s “the mixed signals” they’re received from politicians and others in Washington, D.C.

The vaccine’s safety and efficacy should not be a concern, Fauci said. Decisions around both are arrived at by an independent body and not by the pharmaceutical companies that developed them. The process is “independent and transparent,” he said. All the data is made public and is published in peer-reviewed journals.

“The process is a sound process,” Fauci said. “Speed does not compromise safety, nor does it compromise scientific integrity.” He said that “breath-taking scientific advances allow us to do things in weeks to months that formerly took years. You should not be intimidated by how fast it was done.”

If  population majorities are vaccinated, “we can crush this outbreak” in the same way that health threats from smallpox, measles and polio were brought under control.

Asked if he himself would take the vaccine, Fauci said that “based on the data and the [Food and Drug Administration] recommendations, I would wait my turn and definitely take it, and advise my family to take it.”

He said it’s important to have representatives of African American, Latinx, Native American and Alaska Native communities included in vaccine clinical trials. “We want to be able to look African American and Latinx colleagues in the eye and say, ‘It’s safe and effective in whites and in your community,’” he said.

If you combine “the advantage of the vaccine” with pandemic behavior familiar to almost every American — including handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing — “we will put an end to this outbreak,” Fauci said.

White-Hammond asked Fauci how long the vaccine might last. Fauci said researchers don’t know because they haven’t had enough time to study that aspect.

“We don’t know about the durability of the immunity. It likely will not be lifelong,” Fauci said. “But if it gets us through the pandemic, we may want to come back and boost people. We feel like the durability will be long enough to put the lid on the outbreak.”

Do we assume, Walker wondered, that early vaccine preference will be given to those who’ve been hardest hit by the virus?

Local health departments, Fauci responded, will set priorities on how best to distribute the vaccine. “Health care providers at risk will be high up on the list, and the elderly and those with underlying conditions,” he said. “It hasn’t been determined yet.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in consultation with an advisory committee on immunization practices will make that general determination, he said.

The Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond is co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston and a pediatrician.

Even though he’s received enough criticism and scorn to sink most people’s spirits, “you stay cool, calm and clear,” White-Hammond told Fauci. “How do you cope?”

In two ways, Fauci replied.

“One is, I have developed the ability to focus like a laser beam on my responsibility to protect the health and safety of the American people, and indirectly the rest of the world,” he said. “You get energy by that, and it’s complemented by another special sauce — my wife [the bioethicist Dr. Christine Grady], who is extraordinary. When you have that, everything else is trivial.”

When the pandemic is over, Fauci said he hopes the nation will begin to address the inequities in the health system that people of color face every day. Then the doctor returned to his previous advice.

“Don’t deprive yourself of this extra advance in science by not getting vaccinated,” he said. “Protect yourselves, your family and your community.”

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