Black people working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic spoke to President Joe Biden on Tuesday, describing the struggles they’ve faced during the COVID-19 crisis and encouraging anyone who can get vaccinated to do so.
At a virtual roundtable event that also featured a pharmacist, a child care worker and a firefighter, grocery store manager Jeff Carter said he knew of several workers at Hy-Vee stores in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who have come down with COVID-19.
“Our employees are on the front lines,” Carter said, noting that even with plexiglass installed for cashiers and masks required in stores, their workers are still risking their health interacting with customers every day. “For many of us, it was not a question of if we were going to catch the virus, but when.”
The U.S. hit the horrific milestone this week of half a million people dying from the virus. Black Americans have been disproportionately affected: Black people are three times as likely to be hospitalized as white people in the U.S., and twice as likely to die.
Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which is being negotiated in Congress.
“You all are basically holding the country together,” Biden told the workers Tuesday, promising them more support once the legislative package passes. “You’re carrying it on your back. So thank you for what you’ve done.”
More than 44 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Speaking on Tuesday, Biden urged anyone eligible to “get it as quickly as you can.”
The president acknowledged, however, that due to systemic racism in health care — or, as he put it, “the way American medicine has taken advantage of African Americans for experimentation over the last 100 years” — some Black Americans are hesitant to get the vaccine.
Melanie Owens, a pharmacist from Chicago and participant in the roundtable, got sick with COVID-19 last March. Her pharmacy, which is in a predominantly Black community, has been administering the vaccine to people living in long-term care homes.
Owens was initially “more reluctant” to get the vaccine, she said, but she got vaccinated out of a sense of duty to protect the older residents she worked with in care facilities. After seeing Owens get vaccinated, some of the staff at the facilities changed their minds and decided to get the vaccine too.
“You can be fearful and have questions, but do your due diligence,” Owens urged, noting that getting as many people vaccinated as possible is “a major key to help us move past this.”
“I just encourage everyone to be aware that the vaccine is here to help,” she added. “Please keep rolling out the vaccine, because it is helping to keep people alive and safe.”
The federal government has set guidelines for who should be prioritized for vaccines, but has ultimately left it up to states to determine who is eligible and when. In some states, essential workers and vulnerable populations have been left out of the vaccine pushes so far.
Carmen Palmer, a child care worker in Columbus, Ohio, who joined the roundtable, urged Ohio to include workers like her in its vaccination plan alongside K-12 educators, who are currently eligible.
“I’ve worked every single day during the pandemic,” said Palmer, a single mother whose facility takes care of the children of essential workers. “If I was to get COVID, or my kids, I’d have no other options.”
Demetris Alfred, a firefighter and EMT in St. Louis who was also on Tuesday’s call, warned that after the pandemic passes, federal and local governments will need to continue funding emergency services, so workers deemed “essential” in the pandemic don’t find themselves facing budget cuts or job loss.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d wave that wand to make sure we get the proper funding to sustain our jobs,” Alfred said, “so we can respond and help the citizens of our community.”