Dr. Thea James occupies a prominent place on the front lines of fighting vaccine hesitancy.
She’s a longtime emergency care physician and administrator at Boston Medical Center, which is effectively the city’s leading hospital for Black and brown communities.
So as the COVID vaccine gets rolled out, James is one of the most prominent voices reaching out to those in communities being battered medically and economically by the pandemic.
“Almost every question people have is almost always something where people of color think someone is doing something to de-prioritize them and their health,” James said last week.
“Someone asked me, ‘I heard they’re giving Pfizer to Black people and Moderna to white people. ’ ” She had to explain that, no, vaccines are not being distributed on the basis of race.
Just as the pandemic has brought economic inequality to center stage, it has also prompted soul-searching about the relationship between communities of color and the health care system.
James is right at the intersection of those worlds, a woman steeped in science and data.
And she is also a Black woman who understands that people of color assume disparate treatment exists because they have seen just that in their daily lives.
“If you break it down demographically, Black people always do worse than everybody else,” James said.
“The thing about it is, people never question why the data always looks like that and they just keep doing what they’re doing. From my perspective, it’s all about economics. The difference between people who thrive and people who don’t is money. It’s economics. They cannot prioritize health.”
She recently spoke at a press conference with Mayor Marty Walsh — she is a member of his COVID-19 Health inequities Task Force — about her own initial reluctance to take the vaccine, which she overcame as a matter of promoting public health.
She decided to take the vaccine because she concluded that, personal reservations aside, it’s the only way to help end a pandemic wreaking havoc on the communities she cares most deeply about.
Getting vaccinated was a relief.
“After I took it, I felt 100 percent better,” James said. “Just that burden in my soul — the trust that I have as an African-American person, just being able to overcome that to be able to do something for the betterment of the situation.”
James said she shares the widespread concern that people of color will be reluctant to get vaccinated. But she believes it can be overcome by aggressive engagement with the public: meeting people where they are, and addressing their concerns head-on.
That’s something James has made a career of in nearly 30 years at BMC. A native of the Washington D.C. area, she came to the hospital — then Boston City Hospital — as a resident in emergency medicine, and has never left.
She credits her years in the ER with honing her ability to communicate with patients. Though she could easily opt out of it, she still works two shifts a month in the emergency room.
“It’s in my blood; I’ll always do emergency medicine,” James said. “People come in with all levels of emotions. But when you’re face-to face, you get to be the person who can shift their perspective. And it comes just from listening, and letting them know that what matters to them matters to you.”
Much of James’s current work involves thinking about how to lift the systemic barriers to health care for people who are not getting the care they need., such as working to fund affordable housing.
She has found a home for her advocacy at BMC, where the systemic causes of health care disparities are visible on an hourly basis. In a sense, the clear inequities of COVID have come as no surprise to her.
“What we saw the last months as caregivers, as doctors, is exactly what we see here every day,” James said. “These kids who come in with gunshot wounds come in from the same zip codes where people are dying (of COVID) at higher rates.”