Why the head of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium decided to get vaccinated
Dr. Ala Stanford is usually on the giving end of medical treatment, but on Wednesday afternoon, she played the rare role of patient as she received her first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
This was not the original plan.
As recently as 72 hours ago, Stanford wasn’t going to get the vaccine. At least, not right away. She tested positive for COVID-19 in August and wanted to let her natural antibodies do the work of protecting her from getting sick again. She made an agreement with her physician that she would test regularly for antibodies, and once they wore off, she would get the vaccine.
But the surgeon soon realized that her personal decisions no longer exist in a vacuum. Stanford started the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in April in response to what she saw as a lack of affordable, barrier-free testing for African Americans in and around Philadelphia, among the hardest hit by the virus. What started as a scrappy group of physicians in a rented van popping up to test people on street corners and in church parking lots became a well-oiled operation that secured a testing contract with the City of Philadelphia and has performed more than 20,000 tests to date.
The consortium was valuable not just in providing access to COVID testing for Black Philadelphians who might not have insurance, a car, a doctor’s note or symptoms. It also became a source of trusted medical care for many Black people who were wary of going to government-run health sites.
As a result, Stanford has, in a sense, become the face of the COVID-19 response for the Black community in Philadelphia. That became abundantly clear to her over the weekend, she said, when she was out testing people in West Philadelphia.
“There were many people that said, ‘Doc, we really appreciate what you’re doing, when you tell me to get that vaccine, I’m gonna roll up my sleeve,’” Stanford said. “I feel like I heard that 100 times.”
She said she realized that not everyone had access to the regular antibody testing that she planned to do. Her mother wouldn’t get the vaccine if she didn’t. Neither would her husband’s mother.
“My reasoning for not taking it wasn’t going to resonate with people,” Stanford said. “All they were going to hear was, Dr. Stanford’s not going to take the vaccine.”
Stanford knew the research showed the vaccine was safe and effective. Side effects were usually mild. She knew there were still unknowns, like whether it’s safe for those who are pregnant, or for children, or how long immunity will last. Mostly, she worried about the long-term impact that new technology may have years down the line, but also knew that for Black people, COVID could be deadly a lot sooner than that.
She prayed about it, cried about it, and did her research. When she showed up to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health vaccine clinic on Wednesday afternoon, she was still nervous, but resolved in her decision.