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State’s Top Doc Burke-Harris to Lead Advisory Team as African Americans Raise COVID-19 Vaccine Concerns 

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Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris California Surgeon General

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, three vaccine trials have yielded promising results, and the first round of Americans could begin to receive shots as early as mid-December.

Last week, the California Dept. of Public Health announced that California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris will chair the state’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee. The group Burke-Harris leads will help guide the state’s decision-making about vaccine distribution.

“While the COVID-19 vaccine is new, we are not starting our planning process from scratch. This is an area of expertise we have strong partnerships in, building on lessons learned from previous vaccination campaigns, including H1N1 and the seasonal flu,” said Gov.  Gavin Newsom.

But as the anticipated end of the global pandemic finally comes into our line of sight, some Black activists are raising concerns shared and echoed by skeptical African Americans across the country.

Earlier this month, San Diego civil rights organization People’s Alliance for Justice (PAFJ) sent letters to the four companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, asking them to release data regarding the diversity of vaccine trial participants.

“We need a breakdown of race and ethnicity to analyze data regarding whether communities of color are overrepresented in these trials or underrepresented or equally represented and how our communities are responding to the call for volunteering,” said the letter written by PAFJ Pres. Shane Harris.

According to Harris, Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company, has responded to his inquiry. He shared the letter with California Black Media.

“With regard to your data request, the demographic data collected to date shows that approximately 30% of trial participants in the United States have racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds,” the letter from the CEO of Pfizer reads. “More specifically, 10.1% of U.S. participants are Black, and 13.1% of U.S. participants are of Hispanic/Latinx origin. Please find additional demographic information at the global and U.S. levels here.”

Pfizer says it also plans to present subgroup analyses by age, race and ethnicity and may also do an evaluation by country.

Dr. Oliver Brooks, who is the immediate past president of the National Medical Association (NMA), said during a California Black Legislative Caucus (CLBC) press conference last week that he has also met with the companies developing vaccines and verified that African Americans are included in the trials.

The CLBC organized the virtual press conference to highlight work Black elected officials and healthcare professionals are doing to address the pandemic in California’s African American communities.

Asked whether the vaccine will be prioritized in communities that have been COVID-19 hot spots, which are primarily Black and Brown communities, Burke-Harris says she is taking steps to make sure that process is inclusive.

“We will be reviewing the distribution plan and ensuring that we are having an equitable framework for vaccine distribution,” said Burke-Harris.

Two of the companies developing a COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, and Moderna, announced in November that their vaccines are producing promising vaccine trial results.

The Pfizer vaccine is estimated to be more than 90% effective, with 94 trial participants out of nearly 44,000 contracting COVID-19. The Moderna vaccine was found to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection by 94.5 %.

A third company, AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine with Oxford University, announced that its vaccine, from separate clinical trials, is up to 90% effective.

Pfizer announced on November 20 that it has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to grant an emergency use authorization for its vaccine. On November 22, Moncef Siaoui, the head of Operation Warp Speed — the federal government’s program to produce and deliver 300 million doses of the vaccine by January 2021– told CNN that the group plans to begin administering the vaccine immediately.

“Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites within 24 hours from the approval, so I would expect maybe on Day Two after approval, on the 11th or on the 12th of December, hopefully, the first people will be immunized across the United States, across all states,” Slaoui told CNN.

The FDA committee in charge of the emergency use authorization is scheduled to meet December 10. According to reports, Pfizer and U.S. government officials expect to have 30 to 40 million doses of the vaccine before the end of the year, enough for 20 million people.

Officials have yet to decide which groups of people will qualify for the first round of vaccinations, but they are expected to start with groups vulnerable to infection first, including health care workers, older adults and people who have risk factors such as obesity or diabetes. According to Slaoui, herd immunity is expected by around May 2021.

During a November 13 press conference, medical officials spoke about the progress of various vaccine trials.

One challenge they discussed was the distribution logistics of the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept frozen while stored and transported.

 

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Activism

Tony Thurmond Starts Second Term as State Addresses Educational Inequity

“We’re offering scholarships for anyone who wants to become a teacher. $20,000,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Tony Thurmond told California Black Media. “I sponsored a bill, HB 520, that was focused on how we get more male educators of color. And that bill turned into funding in the state budget. That now means our residency programs can be used to help have male educators of color as part of the beneficiaries of that program.”

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State Supt. of Public Instruction speaks with a student after his swearing in on Jan. 7. Photo by Max Elramsisy, California Black Media.
State Supt. of Public Instruction speaks with a student after his swearing in on Jan. 7. Photo by Max Elramsisy, California Black Media.

By Max Elramsisy | California Black Media

State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Tony Thurmond took the oath of office to begin his second term on Jan. 7 at a ceremony conducted at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles.

Thurmond oversees the education of 6 million PreK-12 students in over 1,000 public school districts across California.

Although SPI is a non-partisan office, Thurmond drew support from many of the state’s top Democrats in his bid for re-election, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and several members of the California Legislative Black Caucus. He was also endorsed by unions across the state, including the California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers Association.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona performed the ceremonial swearing in of Thurmond, who then reflected on his path to the office. The son of a Panamanian immigrant mother and Vietnam veteran father who did not return to his family after the war, Thurmond and his brother were raised by their cousin and relied on public assistance programs and public schools to make it out of poverty.

“I am standing on the shoulders of those relatives who struggle and sacrifice so that we could have a better life,” Thurmond said after he was sworn in. “It was the sacrifices of teachers and classified staff and childcare workers and school administrators who make it possible for me to stand here today as your public servant fighting for 6 million students in the great state of California.”

Thurmond’s first term coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in California’s history — a time, he says, that brought with it many unforeseen challenges.

“We all watched it together. The lives lost and impacted and disrupted by the pandemic,” Thurmond said before naming other cultural, social and political developments the country endured as the COVID-19 crisis intensified.

“The killing of George Floyd, fighting hate against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, racism targeted directly to African American families, anti-Semitism, the mistreatment of Latino families, immigrant families, we have seen so much hate all in such a short period of time that we would move into a pandemic and find out that, in a state with all the wealth that we have in California, that a million students could be without a computer,” Thurmond added. “That is the most important thing that they needed to be connected to in those early days through remote learning.”

Thurmond says his administration stepped up to address challenges presented by the pandemic.

“We know that the impact this has had clearly affected student proficiency levels where they are now compared to where they were a few years before the pandemic and of course, a deep, deep impact on the mental health of our students and our families,” he said.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety and hospitalizations for children and it has been difficult for them,” Thurmond continued. “But our children are more than the sum of their circumstances. They’ve demonstrated their resiliency, and they’re on the path to recovery, and we’re going to help them with that because we just secured enough money to recruit 10,000 counselors for our schools in the state of California.”

The addition of counselors is good news for teachers across the state seeking resources to help their students recover and develop in areas outside of academics where school also plays a crucial role for many students.

“I was very excited when Superintendent Thurman said that there would be 10,000 counselors coming to the school sites because we need that,” said Bridgette Donald-Blue, an elementary school math teacher and California Teacher of the Year award recipient. “The emotional health of our students, that is important, that is very important.”

The SPI does not have any legislative role. But Thurmond, who served in the California State Assembly for two terms, sponsored or endorsed several legislative initiatives that may have a profound effect on the future of education in California and the role that schools play to meet the social and emotional needs of students to provide a positive learning environment.

Thurmond says, beginning in the 2022–23 school year, the California Universal School Meal Program will help all students to reach their full academic potential by providing a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch at no charge for all children each school day regardless of individual eligibility.

Thurmond also has initiatives to combat inequities in the school system including universal preschool for 4-year-olds regardless of background, race, zip code, immigration status, or income level. He also launched the Black Student Achievement Taskforce to help quantify the impacts systemic and institutional racism have had on Black students in California.

Thurmond points out that he sponsored legislation to increase funding to the lowest-performing students, ban suspension and expulsions in preschools, and secured $90 million for suspensions and chronic absenteeism programming.

“I know the impacts of what happens when our students don’t learn to read by third grade. Sadly, they end up dropping out in many cases and in the criminal justice system, and we’re going to change the narrative and flip the script. We’re going to educate, not incarcerate our kids.” Thurmond repeated a pledge for today’s kindergarteners to be able to “read by third grade.”

Recently, some education advocates pointed out that there has been a reported wave of retirements and disincentives that have led to an unprecedented teacher shortage across the nation.

In response, Thurmond says he is creating new incentives to draw qualified people into the school system to help students, especially those who are of color.

“We’re offering scholarships for anyone who wants to become a teacher. $20,000,” Thurmond told California Black Media. “I sponsored a bill, HB 520, that was focused on how we get more male educators of color. And that bill turned into funding in the state budget. That now means our residency programs can be used to help have male educators of color as part of the beneficiaries of that program.”

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Activism

Marin Small-Business Owners Put Microgrants to Good Use

The Marin Microbusiness Grant Program was funded by the State of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate (CalOSBA). The County of Marin, the Marin Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and Dominican University of California partnered on program oversight. The partnership was strengthened by the strategic connections made with more than a dozen local nonprofit organizations that facilitated the connection with microbusiness owners with a gross annual revenue less than $50,000.

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Small Business Development Center promoted the Marin Microbusiness Grant Program during an event at Canal Alliance in San Rafael earlier this year.
Small Business Development Center promoted the Marin Microbusiness Grant Program during an event at Canal Alliance in San Rafael earlier this year.

More than 100 recipients received state COVID-19 economic relief funding with County assistance

San Rafael, CA – Laila Rezai and Darlin Ruiz have something new in common. They are among the 111 small-business owners in Marin County who received a timely $2,500 grant through an agency partnership dedicated to assisting some of the hardest-hit microbusinesses during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

The Small Business Development Center promoted the Marin Microbusiness Grant Program during an event at Canal Alliance in San Rafael earlier this year.

Rezai, an artist and designer, was among the beneficiaries of the Marin Microbusiness Grant Program[External] to use the one-time-only funds for payment of business debts, new equipment, or other costs from pandemic-related business interruptions. Rezai used the money to relocate from a commercial space to home and purchase a laptop to help reduce ongoing business costs.

“For the first time in almost two decades, I’m enjoying working from home,” Rezai said. “The adjustment also means I’ll have a smaller carbon footprint since I don’t need to commute.”

The Marin Microbusiness Grant Program was funded by the State of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate (CalOSBA). The County of Marin, the Marin Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and Dominican University of California partnered on program oversight. The partnership was strengthened by the strategic connections made with more than a dozen local nonprofit organizations that facilitated the connection with microbusiness owners with a gross annual revenue less than $50,000.

Medina, who runs a house cleaning service, was connected to the grant program by way of an in-person fair coordinated by Canal Alliance and attended by SBDC. He said it came as a blessing as he continues to struggle to find work. “I clean houses on my own account, but after the pandemic work is and remains very scarce,” Medina said. He used the funds to purchase cleaning supplies and print business cards.

“I really needed a vacuum cleaner, but they are quite expensive. With that (grant) money I was able to get one,” Medina said.

The application period opened March 23 and closed June 30. Out of 211 applications, 148 were deemed qualified for the grants after a review process. A random lottery, utilizing a verified website, was used to select the recipients. The grants were distributed this fall to a diverse group of businesses from throughout the county with these overall statistics:

  • 61% of awardees were women
  • 5 were military veterans
  • 51% were minorities
  • 50% came from the fields of art/entertainment; professional or technical services; and housecleaning and janitorial.
  • 50% were located in San Rafael, Novato, and West Marin.

Miriam Karell of the Marin SBDC said the community-led approach led to a great deal of the grant program’s success. “Some of our lessons learned include the importance of partnering with local agencies to offer in-person support at events, providing culturally appropriate interpretation support, and spending time with the applicants to help them understand the process and filling out the application with them.”

Jamillah Jordan, Marin County Equity Director, was especially pleased that more than half of the funds were allocated to minority-owned businesses, “especially given only 27% of our population is made of people who identify as a person of color,” she said.

“This funding made a difference for these business owners,” Karell said. “As we look at the data of who applied and received the grants, we were pleased our efforts were able to offer support to underserved populations.”

Creating the local program and accepting the state funding was contingent on the County of Marin’s participation.

For more information, visit MarinSBDC.org.

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Activism

The Updated Booster is Here, Just in Time for the Holiday Season

The facts speak for themselves: vaccines and boosters have undeniable benefits. These tools are what is best for your children as we continue to fight against COVID-19. To prevent severe outcomes, including long COVID, I strongly recommend all parents consider getting their children vaccinated and boosted. If you remain uncertain, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s doctor and get the facts from someone you trust.

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Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19.
Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19. (Photo: Dr. Jerry Abraham, MD, CMQ, MPH)

By Dr. Jerry Abraham, MD, CMQ, MPH

Thanksgiving is next week, and Christmas is around the corner. The holiday season has officially arrived. Now that the updated booster authorized for individuals as young as 5, we’re even closer to ensuring the whole family is protected during fall and winter when the spread of respiratory viruses is at its peak.

The booster has been updated to strengthen protection against the original coronavirus strain while also targeting the dominant Omicron subvariants that have recently spread widely and continue to infect many. We all need to get boosted, and there are groups we need to ensure are protected – children 5 years and older, older adults and those most at risk for serious infection.

As for our older adults, your risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 goes up as you age, and COVID-19 booster doses can help lower the risk of severe illness, long-term effects, hospitalization and death. This means less strain on our hospitals, less risk to our most vulnerable populations and less worry for you and your loved ones this holiday season.

recent study found that overall life expectancy for Californians decreased by three years and noted higher-than-average decreases in life expectancy for Hispanic and Black Californians due to their exposure to higher COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates. That’s why older adults are encouraged to prioritize vaccination to stay safer from severe outcomes and achieve your highest level of health and well-being.

And for parents, I know many of you are feeling fear and uncertainty around getting your children vaccinated and boosted because you want to be sure you make the best choice for your children’s health and futures. Misinformation that is largely spread online and on social media amplifies apprehension and confusion about vaccines.

But the facts speak for themselves: vaccines and boosters have undeniable benefits. These tools are what is best for your children as we continue to fight against COVID-19. To prevent severe outcomes, including long COVID, I strongly recommend all parents consider getting their children vaccinated and boosted. If you remain uncertain, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s doctor and get the facts from someone you trust.

Everyone 5 and older is eligible to get the updated booster at least two months following their last dose, whether that was their primary series or following a booster dose. Getting vaccinated and boosted lowers the risk of contracting, spreading, and getting severely ill from COVID-19.

The updated boosters will help children’s and older adults’ immune systems fight off a wider variety of variants that we most likely will see during the flu season.

The booster is similar to flu vaccines, where the components of the flu vaccine are updated to help protect against the specific flu viruses circulating that year. Similarly, COVID-19 boosters are updated to protect us against the newest variants of COVID-19.

If you are under-vaccinated or unvaccinated, the risk of complications and death increases. Get vaccinated and boosted to protect older loved ones, young children, immunocompromised friends, family and neighbors.

Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19.

Everyday preventative actions like staying home when you feel sick, frequent handwashing, covering your cough, avoiding close contact with sick people, wearing a mask in public indoor spaces and getting vaccinated or boosted can help protect you and your family, especially as we head into the colder months. To schedule an appointment for a vaccination or a booster, visit MyTurn.ca.gov.

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