Speaker discusses vaccine at Northam briefing

During Governor Ralph Northam’s news conference Jan. 14, Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for the Washington D.C. Health and Human Services Agency and director of its Health Care Finance department, shares his thoughts as a COVID vaccine trial participant.

FORT LEE, Va. – Reluctance about and refusal of the COVID vaccine was a key topic of discussion during Governor Ralph Northam’s livestreamed news conference Jan. 14.

The governor invited Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for the Washington D.C. Health and Human Services Agency and director of its Health Care Finance department, to share his thoughts as a vaccine trial participant. He learned after the experimental treatment that he was in the placebo group that received a saline solution, but as soon as the inoculation was approved by the Federal Drug Administration, he once again jumped at the chance to roll up his sleeve and get an injection.

“From the beginning, I understood the critical importance of the vaccine program that is the primary means to blunt the spread of this pernicious disease and its devastating effect our nation, especially among communities of color,” Turnage said as he opened his remarks.

Nationally, there are 230,000 new infections and more than 4,000 deaths daily. Those statistics are growing by nearly 50 percent every two weeks. As “the worst pandemic in more than 100 years,” he said the nation’s “best chance to defeat COVID-19 and return to the way of life we so desperately miss” is the vaccination program.

Epidemiologists are saying the virus will continue to propagate until it can no longer find fuel among the population, Turnage continued.

“We further understand that to build a fortress to prevent this continuing spread, roughly 60-70 percent of the 330 million people in this country must be vaccinated, effectively creating through mass inoculation the much-discussed herd immunity.”

Yet, in jurisdictions all over the country, large numbers of individuals have expressed a “stubborn resistance” to that expectation, he pointed out. The reluctance is “understandable” for it is “born of a justifiable mistrust of medical experiments” conducted decades ago during the world wars. Social media also has been flooded with conspiracy theories spun up by misled individuals.

“I stand before you to bear witness to the process that produced the U.S. vaccines, and particularly the safety record … (of the) rigorous experimental study (processes that are) the superior method for examining the efficacy of any drug or vaccine before these products are released on the market.”

Turnage focused on three points that he hoped would “increase the comfort” of concerned citizens. The first was vaccine design. A routinely expressed fear is the inoculation will actually expose someone to the virus and make them sick. He noted these vaccines are not similar to others that included components of the actual virus itself – polio, measles, the flu, rubella and chicken pox being contrary examples.

“The current vaccines … are built from new and smartly innovative technology based on a single molecule that has the ability to communicate with your body’s protein-making machinery,” Turnage said. “Making protein is a normal biological function.”

The “spike proteins” have the exact appearance of the virus, and thus, the immune system is tricked into developing antibodies to fight COVID should the individual ever become exposed. There is no chance, he stated, that these vaccines will transform into the actual virus and make someone sick.

Next, he addressed the vaccine trials. The George Washington University study he was part of had 30,000 participants – half receiving the vaccine and the remainder injected with a placebo. They were then told to go live their lives while continuing to wear masks and remain socially distanced.

“The result indicated that among the persons who were later found to be infected with COVID, fully 95 percent were in the placebo group, and only 5 percent received the vaccine,” Turnage said. “Moreover, among those whose infections were characterized as severe, with one person actually dying, none had received the vaccine. So, the takeaway is that once you get vaccinated, and you should remember this, you have less than a five percent chance of contracting COVID, and if you get infected despite having the vaccine, there appears to be next to a zero chance you will become deathly ill.”

Which brought him to his third point about safety. With any vaccines or medicine, a key question is whether the trial data shows the benefits outweigh safety concerns. The results from the study in which he participated clearly showed the vaccine would not only protect against a potentially fatal illness but the only demonstrated side effects – mostly fatigue, headaches and muscle aches – were short term and mild.

“I can attest to the fatigue because, after I got my first shot, I slept more than I can remember over the next two days.”

There is no evidence to suggest a relationship between taking the vaccine and experiencing any serious illness as a result. Turnage also said he has read literature that confirms the pharmaceutical companies will continue to randomly monitor persons who have been vaccinated for more than two years to look for any signs of unanticipated side effects.

“So, with respect to safety, the takeaway is that the benefits are exceedingly clear –  a 95 percent reduction in your chances of contracting a disease that has already killed 385,000 people in the United States and is now claiming 4,300 additional lives per day. Projections show that in two weeks, the number of deaths could possibly surpass 6,500 per day. By comparison, the risk of side effects is minimal. Are the risks zero? No. But they are clearly outweighed by the vaccines benefits.”

Concluding his remarks, Turnage shared three numbers – 1.4, 3.7 and 2.8 – that he hoped African-Americans, especially those with underlying medical conditions like him, would contemplate when deciding to get the vaccine. Those are the greater odds the black community faces, relative to white counterparts, for contracting COVID, hospitalization and dying from it.

“So, my plea to you today is please get vaccinated,” he concluded. “It could literally save your life.”

Community members who would like to watch the full Northam briefing that included Turnage’s presentation can find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9VgC74NUcw.