A Nation in Pain, Held Hostage

November 20, 2020
Vaccine and syringe


Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that the standstill in President-elect Joe Biden‘s transition is a threat to public health.

As we head into Thanksgiving week, the U.S. is witnessing an explosion in coronavirus infections, exceeding 11 million cases and 250,000 deaths. In response, the CDC issued an ominous alert yesterday to Americans to strongly consider cancelling Thanksgiving travel plans outside their own homes and immediate family with whom they live.

The pain associated with the astronomical death toll is inconceivable. This week we explored Whose Pain Matters through the lens of racism, social justice and COVID-19’s revealed inequities. Guest speaker Dr. Keith Wailoo eloquently prodded us to consider the toll the pandemic has taken on our collective mental health -- especially as we simultaneously battle the virus and rampant racism, including the appropriation of the "I Can’t Breathe" rallying cry by those who resist protecting humanity through the simple act of wearing a mask.

Vaccines will soon be available to the most vulnerable among us, but will the general public take them in sufficient numbers to reach the level desperately needed to achieve herd immunity?

As Paul Offit, an authority on vaccines and infectious disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, put it: “You have all these odd clinical and pathological changes caused by this novel bat coronavirus, and you’re about to meet it with all of these vaccines with which you have no experience.”

His views and those of the other members of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will soon be shared as they hear in-depth evidence from both Pfizer and Moderna at public hearings to be scheduled by both the FDA and CDC.

We should be preparing the public now with a bold education campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy. This hesitancy is an outgrowth of many legitimate concerns over past abuse by medical researchers (notably the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and polio trials among mentally impaired institutionalized youth). The effect of live virus vaccines in the past, and past problems with the swine flu vaccine, have also caused fears in some people. It also is an outgrowth of a lack of knowledge regarding the relative risk of rejecting vaccines.

These very real issues are sadly exploited by those who want to discourage vaccination for the wrong reasons.

Planning for the distribution and promotion of urgently needed vaccines remains uncoordinated between the outgoing and incoming administrations, due to the lame duck president’s refusal to greenlight a peaceful transition.

And who is predominantly paying the price? Of the quarter of a million Americans who’ve died this year from the virus, the highest concentration of deaths come from vulnerable members of Black and Brown communities. They are disproportionately employed on the front lines, and are more likely to live in crowded housing or to lack access to health care and preventive measures. These are the same communities the current administration is working overtime to disenfranchise in the twilight hours of its truncated term.

We must begin now to educate the nation -- especially those most disproportionately impacted -- that these vaccines will save lives.

So when we give thanks next Thursday, let’s include our gratitude for these remarkable breakthrough vaccines. We call on our institutions to immediately transition to a new phase in this country and in the pandemic, toward the brighter, healthier future that awaits us if we can set aside petty grievances and begin the hard work to heal this nation.

Surely, as divided as we are, that’s something on which we can all agree.



Cheryl Healton

Cheryl Healton, DrPH
GPH Dean
Professor of Public Health Policy and Management