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‘Fear of vaccines is real:’ Dr. John Vassall builds trust one story at a time.

UPDATED: 11/19/2021

70% of Black people in the U.S. say our healthcare system treats people differently because of their race. That’s according to an October 2020 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and ‘The Undefeated’. And many who haven’t gotten vaccinated say mistrust is an important reason.

Dr. John Vassall worked for most of his career as a primary care physician. Now he works with a consulting firm helping federal and state government oversee quality of care in the healthcare system.

He’s also member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, which is committed to promoting the interests of Black people through civic engagement and volunteer work. Dr. Vassall says mistrust shouldn’t stop you from taking care of your health.

“I start by acknowledging that the fear of vaccines is real and justified,” he said. “I’m not going to tell anybody not to be afraid, or that they’re not going to run into racism. You can’t let those issues keep you from getting the care you need.”

‘We have a heritage of contributing to this type of medical intervention.’

Dr. Vassall calls himself an “explain-aholic.” He finds it useful to share stories of Black people rarely recognized for their contribution to medicine.

“We have a heritage of contributing to this type of medical intervention,” he said

For instance, he tells patients about how in medical school, he studied “HeLa cells” to learn how viruses spread.

HeLa cells came from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Doctors treated her for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 50s. They also cloned her cells without her knowledge.

Researchers used those cells to break ground on everything from medication to vaccines to chemotherapy. Lacks died in the 1950s, and her family never received compensation.

Lacks’ story is a perfect example of both the contributions Black people made to medicine and the mistrust many feel. In October, the World Health Organization posthumously honored Lacks for her contributions to medicine.

“I was holding her cells in my hands and that felt special to me,” Dr. Vassall said.  Although the story of Henrietta Lacks is unfair, the influence she was able to have is remarkable.

The enslaved man who helped end the smallpox pandemic.

Vaccination started with something called variolation. That’s a kind of inoculation, and it helped stop the smallpox pandemic.

An enslaved man named Onesimus told his owner, Cotton Mather, about it. The process involved taking puss from smallpox sores and inserting them into the fingertips of healthy people.

That made it less likely they would get smallpox. And if they did get sick, they were far less likely to die.

Dr. Vassall tells these stories because he understands where mistrust of the medical community comes from.

But mistrust or not, you should take your health seriously.

“You need to get the benefit of the therapies and diagnostics available to you,” he said. “Not doing that would be falling into the hands of those that want to disrespect you.

“Don’t deal with someone who isn’t going to respect you and don’t deal with a system that isn’t treating you properly.”

Dr. Vassall reminds patients they have 4 jobs during the pandemic—and vaccines help with all 4:

  1. Don’t get infected.
  2. Don’t infect others.
  3. Don’t get so sick you need to go to the hospital.
  4. Don’t die.

“Withdrawing from the system and not getting care is not what I would recommend,” he said. “Finding a comfortable place to get care, if that’s possible, is what I would recommend.”

Find your dose.

Find your COVID-19 vaccine today at tpchd.org/vaxtothefuture. Everyone 5 and older is eligible. If you need a ride to an appointment or can’t easily leave your home, we can help! Call us at (253) 649-1412, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday.

And you can do even more to help stop the spread.

You can always help build trust with reliable information. Subscribe to the Your Reliable Source blog for our latest news and info.

UPDATED: 11/19/2021

UPDATED: 11/17/2021

UPDATED: 11/16/2021