Looking to inspire others to take preventative health measures, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Benham publicly received the Moderna COVID vaccine Wednesday morning. Members of the local and state media were invited to the Bartow County Health Department, where the Cartersville resident and his wife, Nell, obtained their first of two doses.
“We’re in our 70s, so we decided that we better take advantage of the vaccines that are available, because we take advantage of vaccines at other times,” Benham said prior to being vaccinated. “We try to monitor our health and make sure that we are doing all the preventative things that we can do. We are in relatively good health, and we want to stay in good health.”
Benham, who became the first black Georgia Supreme Court justice in 1989, hopes his proactiveness will encourage people — especially those who are reluctant — to receive the vaccine.
“We want it to be an incentive to other people to take preventative measures if they can,” he said. “Some people who are elderly, they are afraid to do various things. But we are of the opinion that you have to take advantage of what’s out there in order to prevent further illnesses.”
He also addressed reported skepticism within the black community concerning the COVID vaccine.
The Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reported Dec. 15, “About a quarter (27%) of the public remains vaccine hesitant, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists. Vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republicans (42%), those ages 30-49 (36%), and rural residents (35%). Importantly, 35% of Black adults — a group that has borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic — say they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, as do one third of those who say they have been deemed essential workers (33%) and three in 10 (29%) of those who work in a health care delivery setting.”
“I think why there is reluctance for African Americans taking vaccines and things of that nature — in years gone by, sometimes there were attempts to use African Americans for experimentation and some members of the minority community feel that sometimes that’s still the attitude of the medical community. Of course, I don’t share that view, but I can understand why some people have that view.
“When I was growing up, there were a lot people in the community who did not want to take advantage of various shots because the fear they would be experimented on. My parents didn’t have that attitude though.”
One example Benham discussed was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which Benham noted treated “human beings as guinea pigs.” The experiment was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972.
“I was very familiar with what had happened to the men in Tuskegee,” Benham said, noting he is a Tuskegee University graduate. “They were allowed to go untreated over a period of years just to see what affect syphilis would have on them. I knew when I was at Tuskegee there were families who lived in the community whose family members had been part of that experimentation.
“So I was very familiar with that, and that caused a lot of people to be reluctant to take various vaccines because of what had happened. Undoubtedly, what had happened was tragic and there was no reason for that to have been done. The members of the black community were treated more like animals than human beings in order for that study to take place.”
In learning about Wednesday’s event, Dr. Gary Voccio — health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District — shared he is appreciative of Benham for his public display of support for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am grateful to anybody to try to support the need for people to get the vaccine,” Voccio said. “It is a potent thing we will see in the future to fight the pandemic.
“As anyone knows now that’s reading the general newspapers and listening to the news and, of course, the medical community, it’s in the 90 percentile range in protection affording immunity. So we’re really grateful for anybody helping with this. The more people get vaccinated, the more herd immunity we will get and hopefully be able to defeat this virus much more quickly.”
The 10-county health district, which includes Bartow, currently is in Phase 1A+ of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. Among the groups currently receiving the vaccine include first responders, law enforcement, adults 65 and older, health care workers, and staff and residents of long-term care facilities.
“Over age 65 is an enormous part of the population,” Voccio said. “Initially when we just had the health care workers’ industry vaccinated, there was a dearth of response. It was quite interesting early on — only 30% to 40% of health care workers wanted to be vaccinated. Now with the 65-year-olds, there’s been an enormous response, just enormous.
“In DeKalb County, people are sleeping in their cars waiting for the health department to open up. Here in northwest Georgia, between Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, we had 9,900 people to sign up for appointments to get the vaccine,” he said, referring to last week at the Northwest Health District. “They’re just lining up waiting to get the vaccine. So it’s just tremendous. It’s great to see.”
Unfortunately, Voccio noted there is a delay in response in vaccinating all those individuals.
“It’s been quite an enormous task in our health departments. We are getting it done. Yesterday, we vaccinated almost 1,100 people in northwest Georgia,” he said, referring to Monday.
As the vaccination process continues, he asks the community to be patient, concerning DPH’s response.
“It’s overwhelming at this time,” Voccio said. “We do have vaccines coming in.
“We will get everyone vaccinated who makes an appointment. Please just be patient. We will get it done for them.”
For more information about receiving the COVID-vaccine, visit nwgapublichealth.org or call the Bartow County Health Department at 770-382-1920.