In midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the George Washington University’s (GW) Rodham Institute has joined with health, academic, civic, civil rights, and faith organizations, as part of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, to host community education-focused town halls titled the Making It Plain Series. This local and national-level series of educational, open-forum virtual town hall conversations provides science-based information about the virus to dispel misinformation around the vaccine development and distribution processes.
Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, MD, RESD ’88, professor of medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences and founding director of the Rodham Institute, shares her thoughts on the mission of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, and how it dovetails with the goals of the Rodham Institute.
How did the Rodham Institute get involved in the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 (BCAC)?
El Bayoumi: The coalition was established about a year ago by Dr. Reed Tuckson, who was a former D.C. health commissioner during the time of AIDS, and Mr. Ambrose Lane Jr., who is the founder of the DC Healthcare Alliance Network, which represents or advocates for Wards 5, 7, and 8. Through our established relationships with these people, the Rodham Institute was invited to join the Coalition, which includes faith-based institutions, labor groups, academic institutions, business groups; it’s a broad group. We’re part of the BCAC steering committee, and we’ve been part of the coalition almost since its inception.
What was the genesis of this coalition?
El Bayoumi: Basically, the disproportionate death rate among African Americans, as well as other underserved, under-resourced communities prompted the two founders to establish BCAC. The coalition is dedicated to educating the African American community and all of its subcommunities — whether that’s young people, the elderly, the LGBTQ community, homeless, or returning citizens — not only about the COVID-19 vaccine, but also about clinical trials.
The member institutions that have joined include the four Historically Black Medicine Schools — Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Howard University College of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and Morehouse School of Medicine. Two of the four presidents of those institutions participated in vaccine clinical trials.
Basically, the coalition serves to educate people to help move the needle on vaccine hesitancy. But what this group serves to do — through social media, through town halls through, a number of different forums — is to answer questions and address myths, address the hesitancy, which is related to the history around medical research and the African American community. It is about building trust and making sure people feel respected.
As part of that, the Rodham Institute has hosted numerous town halls, and we brought our established partner, BlackDoctor.org, into the coalition. Through the partnership with BlackDoctor.org, those town halls have reached about 1 million people so far. The town halls have included experts such as Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Vivik Murthy, MD, MBA, who previously served as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under President Barak Obama and whom President Biden nominated to be the U.S. Surgeon General in his administration; Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MSHS, who is a co-chair on the COVID-19 task force; Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, who is a co-principal investigator on the Moderna vaccine.
How does BCAC’s work fit in with the mission of the Rodham institute?
El Bayoumi: Our mission is to improve health equity in Washington, D.C. We do that by convening, connecting, and catalyzing. So, for example, we are connecting BCAC to the community through our partnerships with groups such as BlackDoctor.org. We’ve got an incredible series of partnerships, more than 200 at this point.
We are really servant leaders, that’s how we see ourselves, and among our priority areas is that community connection. We leverage our partnerships to bring in people who may not necessarily be represented within the mission of BCAC, to help forward this work of educating the community about the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccines.
The other important contribution from the Rodham Institute is our flexibility to be able to pivot to meet the immediate needs of the community. In addition to offering webinars, we’ve distributed N95 masks to a variety of groups that include residents, teachers, and frontline clinicians working in Southeast Washington. We’ve delivered food to people during the lockdown, including to staff at United Medical Center where, believe it or not, they didn’t have a cafeteria that's open on the weekends or open past 3 p.m. for the people that work there.
Why is it so important to talk about health equity and health disparities?
El Bayoumi: If we talk about us as a society, whether physical or mental health, if we aren’t ensuring that all of Americans have access to the best care possible, then we really aren’t realizing our potential as a nation.
If we see it in a holistic way, there are a number of things we can do to improve the health of the community, ensuring there’s access to good quality food and good quality housing, for instance. If all the Rodham Institute did was to help kids to graduate from high school, we could add 10 years of life to their life expectancy. In Washington, D.C., the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest residents is almost 27 years. For someone living in Georgetown for instance, their life expectancy is 94 years, but if you’re living in Anacostia, 64. If we could just get kids to graduate from high school, we could cut that deficit almost by half.
The whole reason the Rodham Institute was established was because in Washington, D.C., the capital of the richest country in the world, we lead the country per capita in cancer mortality and end-stage kidney disease and HIV.
And that doesn't even tell the whole story. In Ward 8, we have the same HIV rate as Namibia and the same infant mortality rate as El Salvador and Cambodia. I feel that as an academic institution, we really have to be actively engaged with our communities. That is what the Rodham Institute has done and is trying to do, close those gaps and end those health disparities.