Roy Dunlap and his team play an essential role in the fight against COVID-19. He manages a crew of hospital custodians that clean the rooms of infected patients at Howard University Hospital. Disinfecting these spaces can be a thankless job with plenty of risk and low pay.
Several of his workers have come down with the virus since the start of the pandemic, so when the hospital announced that it was receiving one of the first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine, Dunlap knew he had to sign up.
For him, getting the shot was about convincing his staff, and the black community, that the vaccine is both safe and effective at preventing serious illness.
The Decision to Get the Shot
Dunlap felt a personal obligation to get vaccinated based on his experiences in and out of the hospital where he works. COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on the African American and Latinx communities. The CDC says black Americans are nearly three times more likely to die of the disease than white Americans.
Black and Latinx individuals are also much more likely to work in-person on the frontline of the pandemic, increasing their risks of infection.
With a team of 70 workers, Dunlap wanted to do everything he could to protect his employees as they cleaned the rooms of infectious patients. When the pandemic first hit, he says some of his custodians walked off the job for fear of catching the virus, while others refused to clean the rooms with patients that have tested positive for COVID-19.
Earlier in the year, one of his workers died after getting infected with COVID-19, but Dunlap says they didn’t contract the virus at work. In all, 10 of his employees have tested positive with moderate to mild symptoms. As more people quit or got sick, Dunlap and his team found themselves working longer hours to fill in the gaps.
“The early stage [of the pandemic] was really rough for me, so that’s why I felt that I had to be at the forefront to lead,” Dunlap said.
The night before getting the shot, Dunlap recalls sitting down with his wife and teenage son to tell them he plans to get the vaccine. He remembers his wife responding with, “What do you mean? Your family needs you. Let somebody else take it.” His teenage son stared at his dad, taken aback at his announcement.
But Dunlap says he’d already made up his mind to get the shot by the point. It wasn’t just about instilling trust in his workers; it was about showing all black people that it’s in their best interest to get the shot, including his immediate family.
First Doses Arrive at Howard University
The historically black institution was one of six sites to receive the first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine, which arrived Monday morning. Providers immediately began administering some 6,825 doses of the drug to essential workers.
Anita Jenkins, the chief executive of the hospital, said, “We will take the vaccine not to jump in line, but to show people and to help people understand this is a safe weapon against the scourge of covid that has just been taking lives, day after day.”
It’s significant that Howard University was included in the first round of shipments. The medical school was founded just three years after the end of the Civil War to train doctors to care for the capitol’s newly freed black people.
Today, the hospital is serving patients in Ward 7 and Ward 8 in Washington D.C., home to the city’s largest populations of African Americans.
“We have a legacy of leadership in science and developing insights into new science approaches to treating health, and in applying science to the benefit of people of color,” said Reed Tuckson, a doctor and Howard University trustee who is the founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.
Administrators and managers at the facility were quick to show their support for getting vaccinated, while encouraging other members of the community to do the same.
Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, the hospital’s chief medical officer, who got the vaccine right before Dunlap, said, “We’ve all heard the statistics about what happens in the African American community and communities of color. And so, it’s important for those who are in leadership roles to demonstrate our willingness to take the vaccine.”
When all was said and done, Dunlap felt inspired knowing he was working toward the greater good.
“I feel this day is historic because this is the beginning stages of making covid-19 decline,” Dunlap said after being vaccinated. “And somebody has to be the guinea pig. Somebody has to be the front line to volunteer and everything to see if the vaccine works.”
His staff then had to clear the room as they began another day of work, disinfecting the hospital. Hopefully, his employees will soon follow in his footsteps.