I Took a COVID-19 Vaccine Selfie. Then the Questions Came Pouring In.

The response to one Instagram post shows just how much mistrust of the vaccine there is among the Black community. They’re concerns I shared — here’s why I got the shot anyway.

Ernest Owens receiving the Moderna COVID vaccine administered by the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

On Saturday, I walked into Deliverance Church in North Philly and got my first of two injections of COVID-19 vaccine. A few days earlier, I realized that I qualified to receive a vaccine for the volunteer work I do that involves community outreach. Administered by Ala Stanford and the incredible health professionals at the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, the vaccination was free, didn’t require health insurance, and remains available for those living in Philly who fit the current Phase 1b criteria.

Getting vaccinated wasn’t nearly as fraught as I feared. It happened in a socially distanced space at a church. I was asked a series of general health questions before receiving the shot. And I made sure I got the vaccine from Moderna, the one created by a Black woman. It was a quick sting. They scheduled my follow-up dosage (right before Valentine’s Day), and off I went to a waiting room for 20 minutes to make sure I showed no signs of major dizziness or extreme fatigue.

And that was the end of it — until I shared my experience on social media. That’s when my direct messages went off.

Many of the people who messaged me were Black and shocked that I, of all people, trusted the government enough to get vaccinated. Several readers of this column wanted to know if I’d been “paid to go through with it,” “brainwashed,” or “forced to do it to keep my job.” Obviously, none of these scenarios is true — but I had struggled with whether or not to get the shot.

I initially feared that taking it would make me a guinea pig. I had already heard people within my network say they wanted to wait because the vaccines only had emergency use authorization (to which I say, 400,000 Americans have died; it’s an emergency authorization for a reason). In a nutshell, my concerns were rooted in a fear of becoming a test case and experiencing unanticipated side effects.

What convinced me to get vaccinated was watching loved ones suffer from getting COVID-19. The mother of a friend recently died of COVID, turning his entire life upside down; in addition to losing his mother, the friend needed to relocate immediately and adjust finances. Right now, there is a huge racial disparity between those who are getting vaccinated and those who are not. The reasons are numerous — some systemic and some involving community distrust — but the result is that Black people aren’t getting a lifesaving treatment during a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting them.

I couldn’t let that be me. I wasn’t going to have any regrets. I understand the distrust and the skepticism. I grew up with it, too. But this isn’t Tuskegee. This isn’t some experiment being conducted behind closed doors. This vaccine is being administered out in the open to people of all colors. Those getting it — including white people — are doing so because in this season of so much death, they want to stay alive. Given the disproportionate toll COVID is taking on the Black community, we should want the same.

So I spent much of the weekend reassuring folks that I made my decision freely because I wanted every possible weapon at my disposal in the fight against this pandemic. And I knew that sharing my rationale was one of the most effective ways for me to get people who are skeptical to consider taking the vaccine. 

I explained that I view getting vaccinated as another step toward normalcy. My younger brother is graduating from high school in the spring, and there’s no way I’m getting on a plane without being vaccinated. I’m getting married in the fall and want to set the tone for my wedding party. (My best man, a medical staffer at Penn, has already received his vaccination as well.) The sooner more of us get vaccinated, I explained, the sooner we can get back to our lives. Herd immunity is an indisputable way of fighting against this virus, and the only way to safely reach head immunity is through mass vaccinations. 

Others had concerns about the process itself. They were worried about side effects and had heard all types of bizarre pseudo-science. “No, this vaccination doesn’t contain a strain of COVID-19, like the flu shot has some of the flu,” I told one activist who claimed to have seen something like that on social media. The only side effect I experienced was slight injection-site pain for a day, which is common with many vaccinations. Some of my other vaccinated friends have reported a slight headache that went away quickly with rest and hydration. So no, you’re not going to get “the pre-COVID flu” or develop some sort of “sporadic erectile dysfunction” from taking it. (I can’t keep you off social media, but stop getting your health information from memes, y’all! Get better pandemic information from people like this awesome expert and this incredible doctor.)  

Overall, a lot of the conversation led to people rethinking their stances against getting vaccinated. One person was pretty blunt, telling me: “I know you wouldn’t kill yourself, so I guess I’ll sign up.” That’s true. Still, it doesn’t mean I’ll now roam around Philly without a mask and not social distance — the science says the vaccine takes time to build up immunity, it’s not yet clear whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus, and the guidelines recommend that we stay masked and distanced until we get closer to herd immunity. But the immediate sense of relief I’ve felt over the past few days has been everything. The world isn’t back on just yet, but getting vaccinated felt like a promising sign that things could be turning around soon

And unlike much about this pandemic, it was a decision I had control over. Deep down inside, I want more Black people to feel that same joy and reassurance. Many within our community are essential workers and/or have preexisting conditions that qualify us to get a vaccine immediately. Why wait and risk becoming another grim statistic?

I don’t endorse much, but I will definitely back this: Get a COVID-19 vaccination if you can right now. The feeling of relief is priceless.