A table is lined with syringes at a vaccine event.
The COVID-19 vaccine distribution site at the Pipkin Building in January 2021. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50. 

Editor’s note: This town hall has been postponed due to inclement weather and driving conditions. We’ll update this story with a new date and links as soon as they are available.

Women United and United Way of the Mid-South will convene key health administrators and experts for a virtual town hall next week about the COVID-19 vaccine and the coronavirus in the Mid-South.

Sherica Hymes, a member of Women United’s leadership committee, said the goal of “Candid Conversations: COVID-19 Vaccinations” is to discuss the vaccine in terms that everyone can understand.

“It is truly meant to be educational and it is not a conversation where we are trying to persuade people in either way,” Hymes said. “We’re not saying take the vaccine or don’t take the vaccine. We just want people to make informed decisions, not based off information that they are getting from unreliable sources.”

Register and take survey to help guide discussion

Take this survey in advance. Responses are anonymous but will guide the conversation. 

Register here for the event.

Or watch the event on United Way’s website here.

The free town hall, set for 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m Feb 11, promises honesty and candor about vaccinations with a presentation from Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center. A panel will follow Graham’s presentation featuring leaders of the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task Force, including Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter.

United Way of the Mid-South is a nonprofit focused on addressing poverty in the Mid-South. Women United, an engagement group of the organization, focuses on breaking generational cycles of poverty for women and children.

The panel will be moderated by Wendi C. Thomas, founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Thomas, a veteran investigative reporter and editor, is storied for work that includes exposing economic and racial disparity and exploitation in healthcare. Her recent reporting has focused on inequality in access to the vaccine.

Dr. Keith Norman, vice president of government affairs for Baptist Memorial Healthcare, will lend his expertise to the panel as a member of the city and county’s COVID Task Force. He is also the pastor of First Baptist Church-Broad, so when a nurse arrived at his hospital with the first case of COVID-19 in Shelby County, he said he broke the news to the patient and prayed with her.

“I’m encouraging the vaccine, but as I do in my practice of faith, I don’t encourage anybody to try Jesus without first learning about him.”

Dr. Keith Norman

“The first thing she asked me was, ‘Am I going to die?’ And I told her, ‘Certainly not, and we’re going to pray together and we’re going to win,’” Norman said.

The nurse beat COVID-19, went on to care for other patients with the disease and took the first vaccine administered at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, said Norman.

Opportunity for understanding

Norman hopes to break down myths discouraging some people from taking the vaccine. More importantly, he said, people need to understand the vaccine before they decide whether to take it.

“I’m encouraging the vaccine, but as I do in my practice of faith, I don’t encourage anybody to try Jesus without first learning about him,” Norman said.

Another panelist is Dr. LaTonya B. Washington, who is president of the Bluff City Medical Society, a physician advisor at Saint Francis Hospital-Memphis and a clinical assistant professor for the Department of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Washington hopes to emphasize that COVID-19 is still a significant threat, especially to Black communities.

“It is important that Black people see medical professionals that look like them who are encouraging safe behaviors, modeling those behaviors, taking the vaccine, and being willing to answer questions that they may have,” Washington said. “It’s not just about me as a physician lecturing to others, it’s a dialogue.”

Joining the panel also is Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, and Nathaniel Boutte, a pharmacist at Walgreens.

Shelby County has seen more than 83,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,300 deaths related to the virus. As of Wednesday, more than 48,000 people had received their first dose of the vaccine in Shelby County while more than 15,000 had received their second.

Medical racism is pervasive in American history and has led some Black Memphians to be skeptical of the new vaccines. Meanwhile, health experts worry undervaccination could allow the virus to spread in Black neighborhoods, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

TaJuan Scott Stout Mitchell, chairperson of Women United, said the skepticism is legitimate but hopes to ease it by providing good information.

“I believe our fears can be conquered when we are equipped with information and educated with facts,” Mitchell said in a statement. 

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com

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