Terris King is intimately familiar with the Black community’s skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines.
The Baltimore pastor — who has also worked for 30 years in federal and other public health programs — has been using his remote pulpit for almost a year to preach about the power and safety of vaccines, weaving together science and religion in a way he may be uniquely qualified to do. STAT first spoke with him in August about his work combining grassroots organizing efforts and religious teachings to explain the Covid-19 vaccine and arm his community with enough information to make their own decisions about it.
Now, there are two authorized Covid-19 vaccines, and more expected soon. But in surveys, over one-third of Black Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, versus a quarter of white Americans, and early numbers suggest uptake in the Black community is as much as two to three times lower than the rate for white Americans.
King admitted that even in his own congregation, there is still plenty of hesitancy — hesitancy he is working to overcome by continuing to share information and connect his congregation with the likes of Pfizer, Johns Hopkins University, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
One thing he isn’t doing? Pledging, publicly, that he’ll take a vaccine as soon as it’s available to him. Unlike other public health officials, King is keeping mum about his own plans to take the vaccine or skip it.
“The moment I become a sole encourager of the vaccine, of taking the vaccine, I lose my credibility, because then, ‘He is no longer looking out for us, he’s looking out for industry, he’s looking out for researchers, he’s looking out for the government, he’s looking out for pharmaceutical [companies],’” King suggested. He wants to bring “a community facts, and [to have] the trust that they have the intelligence to make their own decision.”
STAT caught up with him to talk more about how he still makes sure he’s leading by example, how he plans to continue his work, and what all of it means for the future of equity in medicine. The text below was lightly edited for length and clarity.
How has your community responded to the development of the vaccines? Now that they’re here, what has changed?
We are not monolithic. We don’t all think the same about this vaccine. There are African Americans who served in the military, and who are first responders. In many instances, their perspective, particularly military folks who are accustomed to multiple vaccines, is very positive.
The vast majority of the population has been hesitant. Though their questions may be about safety and efficacy, and what’s in it, and what effect it will have on genes, and what effect it will have because of their comorbidities, the real issues have been about the history and the treatment of African Americans, both historically and currently, in the health care system. Right now it’s a mixture, but the vast majority are still pretty negative about the vaccine.
What have you done in your congregation to combat some of the vaccine skepticism that you’ve heard? And what progress have you made with those efforts?
I had Johns Hopkins, Pfizer, and Sanofi on the line for prayer services one night, and [congregants] got to listen to a presentation that was really focused on the issue of [flu and Covid-19] vaccines. And it went very, very well. And Sanofi was moved in such a way that they actually made a presentation and had conversations with their executives, to give them some perspectives on what needs to be done as they struggle with the issue of the lack of African Americans in clinical trials.
I’m [also] part of a Johns Hopkins effort [to hold] focus groups with members of my congregation and other churches. And what we’re doing, many of the questions that they’ve had, we’re bringing those facts to them. Some of the people have said, “Well, my questions are answered, I’m gonna take it.” But many of them haven’t.
Are you also continuing to talk about the vaccines in your sermons?
I talk about Covid, and the facts, along with the impact of the political issues that we’ve faced, every Sunday. Most recently, my focus has been on the words of prophet Hosea: “My people are destroyed because of a lack of knowledge.” So what I’m bringing to them is knowledge. What I’m bringing to them is facts, but the fact-givers don’t have all the answers. This is a walk of faith. When you hear Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, [the head of infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health], there are some things he says, “We don’t know, but we believe this will happen.” So at the end of the day, we walk by faith, and not by sight, and they’re hearing that every Sunday.
Do you think the message is sinking in?
I think the message that’s sinking in is “this is a personal decision.” I think the intent of my message is to bring them facts. I think the message is sinking in that some of the things that they may have believed were myths, but if you’re asking me, “Do I think I’ve convinced them, with these facts, to take the vaccine?” That’s not my purpose. It never was. I’m their pastor, not their decision-maker.
Is that why you aren’t telling your congregation or the media whether you, yourself, will take the vaccine?
I don’t understand why that’s important.
I think many people see it as a “leading by example” thing.
I am leading by example. I’m bringing scientists to the community. I’m making sure my congregation is informed. I’m not having church [in person] on Sunday morning. I’m practicing social distancing, washing my hands, and covering my face. And I’m advocating every policy and principle that is taught by CDC and other places of government. How am I not leading by example?
I decide what a positive example is for my community. No institution tells me what a positive example should do.
So you won’t tell them if and when you do get it?
I haven’t gotten it yet, I haven’t been offered it yet. But when I get the vaccine, if I do, they will know. There’s nothing to hide. When I get it, it’s not going to be for the purpose of saying, “You all better get it too.” They know the comorbidities that I have as a cancer survivor.
But isn’t it true that if one of your congregants sees you get the vaccine, sees that it isn’t harmful to you, won’t that be a positive influence?
Oh, it definitely will influence some others to do that. I’m not discounting that at all.
But you’re not actively encouraging them to take the vaccine?
I don’t know about that. By bringing people facts, are you encouraging them to take the vaccine? If they’re operating on myths and you bring them facts, is that an encouragement?
The moment I become a sole encourager of the vaccine, of taking the vaccine, I lose my credibility, because then, “He is no longer looking out for us, he’s looking out for industry, he’s looking out for researchers, he’s looking out for the government, he’s looking out for pharmaceuticals.” I’m not willing to compromise my position, which is to be a person who brings a population facts, brings a community facts, and has the trust that they have the intelligence to make their own decision.
A pastor definitely occupies a unique position in public health in that sense.
Absolutely. And, in addition to being a pastor, I’m a pastor who has worked with pharmaceutical companies as a health care executive. I’m a pastor who’s also a scientist, who has studied the areas of how these institutions should engage with African American communities. I don’t look at this as a typical pastor would, which causes not only my church, but other churches throughout the city of Baltimore, to utilize me as a subject matter expert.
Let me give you an example. People [were] starting to protest that the vaccine is not being offered in the African American community. But [a group of local Black] pastors came to me, and because I sit on the advisory council of the health commissioner, I reached out to her, and we reached out to the mayor, and we were able to meet with this group [of people protesting the lack of outreach]. [We were able to] come up with some agreement, and really put the fire out that the group had. So this is the role of serving not just for my church, I’m the bridge between health care, science, the sanctuary, and the community.
Do you think the government has done a good job of showing these images of Joe Biden getting the vaccine? Has it helped at all?
If I listen to what the community is saying, Fauci and Vice President Kamala Harris probably had even a greater effect. They did say, “I want to see Fauci take it. I want to see Kamala take it.” Now, how it moves the needle? I don’t know. I think even more impactful is the fact that there are first responders that they know, people who work in hospitals that they personally know who’ve taken the vaccine, ‘cause “I know you, and you’re still alive, you’re still healthy, you’re still OK.”
How do you think the vaccine communication strategy nationally and locally has gone? Do you think it was botched, or do you think it was effective?
I don’t know what the communication strategy was nationally. I mean, honestly, I’m not trying to cast any shade on anyone. I don’t know what the communication strategy was. Now, the communication strategy on a local level, I gather, is forming. But, I mean, what actually are we talking about? There are no commercials. There are no — I mean, what’s the strategy?
Do you think it’s too late?
No, I think that this is the time to develop a communication strategy, in a hurried way.
Once you acknowledge the pain in the past and in the present, once you make a promise about addressing and funding health care services to underserved populations, and moving quickly, all of that can be covered in less than a minute [in an advertisement].
“We know we know what you’ve been through, we acknowledge that there’s been wrongs placed upon you by the health care research systems of the past. We get Tuskegee, we get Henrietta Lacks, we get the unequal treatment of people of color in this country by the systems. And because of that, here’s what we’re doing. And then because of that, we need you to do something.” That’s the message. “We need you, not only for the government, but for your mom, or your dad, or your grandma, we need you to take this vaccine.” That’s the simple message, and I think that will be impactful.
This is the time for the media blitz. We got a new administration, you couldn’t do this communication prior to [this]. If we don’t trust this administration, we ain’t gonna trust any. Do that media blitz and acknowledge the pain and the hurt and say, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, and this is what we need you to do for your country.”
How has your congregation been?
They’re doing amazingly well. I think they feel that as a church of a few hundred people on the corner of Liberty Heights and Copley Road, [Liberty Grace] has gotten exposure, nationally and internationally, who’d have thunk it?
We’re on calls with Robert Wood Johnson and Johns Hopkins speaking for the African American community, the only religious community on any of these calls or Zoom sessions. We’re speaking for the Black church. The name of Liberty Grace is on NBC, members of my church are walking with me on NBC with Lester Holt talking about their concerns related to Covid. How did that happen? How is your pastor on MSNBC, in the middle of the day, talking about these issues? How are people in Australia and in the Middle East talking about Liberty Grace? This was not the case when I talked to you several months ago. STAT News has opened the door, and the church has stepped through the door.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned from talking to people in your community, and also from disseminating these messages and working with all these organizations? What have you learned about vaccine strategy for marginalized groups?
I’ve really learned the power of pastors who have focused on community and their health and well-being. It has reiterated for me the resiliency of the communities that I serve. Lastly, it has reinforced that, because of the pandemic, it is overwhelmingly obvious that our health concerns are connected in ways that we didn’t see before. This has opened the door of real possibility to connect industries that were not connected before, people that were not connected before, conversations that didn’t happen before. I wasn’t talking to Hopkins before. I wasn’t talking to the Milken Institute before. I wasn’t talking to Pfizer, Sanofi before.
What I’m seeing is institutions that, for different reasons, maybe it’s return on investment, maybe it’s lowering [hospital] readmissions, maybe it’s increasing profits, maybe it’s getting more minorities to participate in clinical trials, or maybe it’s just about helping the people in the community, but this pandemic has given us a real chance at bringing all those entities together for the good of the people. And that’s what I’m hoping.