Reverend Hiram L. Brett serves as Chaplain and Coordinator of Spiritual Services at Connecticut Mental Health Center and as a weekend chaplain in the Emergency Department of Bridgeport Hospital. As a staff member working in a high-risk hospital area, he was one of the first to be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. In this interview, Reverend Brett reflects on his decision-making process, his thoughts as an African American man facing the choice to take the vaccine, and his experience getting vaccinated last week.
Q: You had to make a decision about whether or not to get the vaccine. What was your thought process?
Working in the ER, you don’t know who is COVID-positive and who is not. It can be quite anxiety-producing. From the beginning I knew there was a high likelihood I wanted to take the vaccine. Also, given the fact that I am Black, and Black people are disproportionately affected by the disease, I was strongly considering it. Another factor was that I’m about to become a grandfather. It’s an additional reason I wanted to make sure I was as safe as possible.
When the vaccine became available, the Yale New Haven Health System gave a Town Hall in which medical personnel answered our questions about the vaccine. They talked about how they would distribute it to staff in high-risk areas, in alphabetical order by last name. Because my name starts with “B,” I figured I’d be pretty high up on the list.
So I started doing my own research. I looked at FAQ’s and scientific articles online. I talked to physician friends of mine. I put my information together. Also, I learned that if you have a reaction to the vaccine, it’s very treatable, so that was reassuring.
At the same time, I know the history and I understand all the reasons Black people are skeptical. I’ve been sifting through all of that as well: Tuskegee experiments, Henrietta Lacks, and the disparities in the healthcare system today that still disproportionately affect us.
Even weighing all of that, I sorted my thoughts into two questions: whether I was going to trust the virus, or the vaccine. That was the equation for me. Do I trust the virus that I’m not going to get it, or that I’ll have a good outcome; or do I trust the vaccine, the research, the doctors? I chose the vaccine.
Q: Have you seen people with the virus who are being treated at the hospital?
Yes. I know how it kills. Just last Saturday, while working my shift in the Emergency Room, I received a text to visit a patient and talk with the patient’s family. The patient contracted COVID in mid-November, and the family was having to consider whether to put him on “CMO,” comfort measures only. The family was distraught. The father was only in his mid-60’s. After visiting with the family, I got a call from a friend who told me he’d caught the virus last month, and for a couple of days he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. Now he’s on the mend. You just don’t know if you’re going to catch it—or if you do catch it, what it could do to your body.
Q: What happened after you made your decision?
An email came last Tuesday morning telling me I could schedule my appointment starting the following day. I did so immediately, for 9 AM Wednesday morning. A list of questions popped up that went through my health history and informed me that the vaccine was approved for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). As you answer the questions, you’re able to finally decide whether you’re going to take it. You sign that you know it’s approved for EUA.
There were not a lot of people in the space when I went in. They checked my ID. The shot went very quickly. They encouraged me to schedule my follow-up appointment with them, so I did that (you need to get the second shot within a specific period of days). They gave me information about possible allergic reactions and what to do. I was probably in the space for about 15 minutes at the most. My shoulder was sore from the injection that night, but it felt fine the next morning.
Q: What would you say to someone who is still deeply skeptical about the vaccine?
I would say, talk to someone you trust in the medical community. Talk to your doctor to find out if there is a reason why you shouldn’t take it. Do your research. Make sure you are looking at quality research, such as the CDC. Look at your health situation and think about those you love who surround you.
I’m a preacher, so I have to say this: in this situation I would lean to faith as opposed to fear. If you’re choosing to keep yourself exposed to the virus with the potentiality that you don’t know how it will affect you or your loved ones, are you letting fear drive you? I would opt toward faith and lean to the vaccine.
I’ve heard people say that we don’t know the long-term effects. This is true. One of the words that keeps coming up for me lately is “equanimity,” the ability to hold differing truths at one time and stay balanced in a stressful situation. You have to be able to do that.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts that you want to share?
Yes. To those in the Black community, I’m not saying Tuskegee didn’t happen or that there’s not a history that makes mistrust of the medical community justified. You can hold both ideas at once. We’ve been treated badly, and we still don’t have the respect we deserve. I get that. But do you grasp this opportunity to take the vaccine, which should help ameliorate the problem we are facing now? Or do you say, look, you’ve treated me badly, so I’m not even going to take this olive branch at this time?
The problem is real, and I’m not discounting any of that. But if we are going to get to a place where we can stop this virus from ravaging our community, I think we need to try to take the vaccine. I go back to the image of Saturday: a man going on comfort measures only, and the distress of his family. It happens. We can’t think of this virus as not killing us. It’s too real, and that is why I chose to have faith in the vaccine, and to do all that I can to protect myself and the people in my life.