Coronavirus Update New York City: Black communities finding influence from historical figure over COVID vaccine

Coronavirus update for NYC

ByEyewitness News via WABC logo
Saturday, February 13, 2021
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As Bronx resident John Lemon headed into a church in the Bronx to get a COVID-19 vaccine, the 84-year-old was skeptical -- a sentiment shared by many in Black communities.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- As Bronx resident John Lemon headed into a church in the Bronx to get a COVID-19 vaccine, the 84-year-old was skeptical -- a sentiment shared by many in Black communities.

"I'm not all excited about it," Lemon said. "I'm going to go on the side of caution."

In order to understand that distrust in the health care system, history must be understood first.

Henrietta Lacks is the subject of an HBO film. The mother of five had cervical cancer, and while undergoing treatment --having had no idea -- doctors harvested cells from the tumor.

So-called "Hela cells" have led to groundbreaking treatments with everything from cancer to HIV. Even now, scientists are using those very cells to study COVID-19.

The problem is Henrietta's family also didn't know about the sample, not until long after she died in 1951, something her great granddaughter and grandson says haunts them.

"Her cells launched a multi-million dollar industry, which took over 20 years for my family to learn about the significance of her story," great granddaughter Veronica Robinson said.

The driving force behind the family's non-profit Hela 100 focuses on advocacy and education.

"We're no longer the victim," grandson Alfred Lacks Carter said. "We are victors, because our grandmother has us this platform, so we encourage our community to be active in their own health, overcoming fear by asking questions."

Dr. Sampson Davis did get a COVID-19 vaccine and believes in order to get past this moment of uncertainty, we must first start the healing process.

"I believe in stepping into the community, you have to meet people where they live," Emergency Medicine Physician Dr. Sampson Davis said. "You have to be part of the fabric of the community, so churches, barber shops, beauty salons, local grocery stores, have to be there to engage the community."

Despite making up 24% of the city's population, recent data shows only 11% of blacks have been vaccinated - many, however, did not disclose race.

Back at Greater Eternal Baptist, Bruce Rivera did roll up his sleeve. He had COVID-19, along with his son Elias.

"Somebody's got to do it," Bronx resident Bruce Rivera said. "And if this is a way out or way to normalcy, then I think it's worth the risk."

Lawrence Lacks knows all too well as he's Henrietta's oldest child, and during this incredible full-circle moment, he got a COVID-19 vaccine.

Robinson kept in mind what her grandfather always says.

"My mother was a bad woman in life, and she's even badder in death," she said. "How powerful."

CLICK HERE to learn more about Henrietta Lacks and her life story.

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