Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White Credit: Darrow Montgomery

There is hardly a worse time for an elected official to reveal their aversion to vaccinations than the middle of a global pandemic. To be clear, LL is not saying Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White is vaccine averse.

He can’t say that, because White has not returned multiple calls, text messages, and an email asking him to clarify a comment on his Instagram account that has community members shaking their heads. It appears the comment has been deleted.

Last week, White posted a job call for coronavirus contract tracers to his 40,000 Instagram followers. In a comment on the post, the account for Our City DC, an organization that advocates for the release of Antone White and other prisoners, warned that “Vaccination is the end game.” The comment referenced the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a 40-year federal government experiment that, by design, let black men infected with syphilis in rural Alabama go untreated.

In response, White, or someone posting from his account, wrote “you really think I would be promoting something that’s going to be giving vaccines to my people? ?”

His comment touched off discussion on the Great Ward 8 Facebook page and prompted longtime community member Philip Pannell to write an open letter in response.

“Although I believe in some holistic health regimens, I also have some trust in western medicine,” Pannell writes. “Of course, rigorous skepticism is part of the scientific method and it should always be employed. However, it is exceedingly dangerous when skepticism in our community becomes so intransigent and intellectually slipshod that some of our leaders and activists encourage people not to do the things that can save their lives and that of their neighbors. This type of ill informed advocacy is a contributing factor to why most African Americans do not donate blood or are organ donors.”

Pannell, who is the executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, did not mention White by name, but confirms that he wrote the letter in response to White’s comment. Pannell says his letter represents his personal views, not those of the ACC.

Still, his statements struck some as politically motivated—Pannell lost to White in the 2011 State Board of Education race. JaVonni Brustow, a former D.C. resident, communications consultant, and Republican, who lives in Petersburg, Virginia, published a letter to his Facebook page in response.

“As the leader of the Anacostia Coordinating Council who is the recipient of tax dollars, it is extremely unethical to take such a public stance against a statement supposedly made by a sitting Councilmember of the very ward you are supposed to serve,” Brustow writes. “You, also, are not an epidemiologist nor a public health expert that can be deemed as an authority on the effectiveness of newly created vaccines or medicines and how they affect the black community.”

Brustow adds that he’s reported Pannell to the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of the Inspector General. LL’s attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. Pannell says Brustow “can bring a lot of heat to an issue with practically no light. So as far as I’m concerned, he is nothing more than a footnote to a distraction.”

Patrice Lancaster, a Ward 8 activist who runs her own consulting firm, says there is a stigma and distrust around vaccinations in the African American community due in part to the Tuskegee experiment.

Researchers told nearly 400 African American men that they were being treated for “bad blood,” but did not give them proper treatment despite the availability of penicillin. The experiment, called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” began in 1932 and sought to determine through autopsies what untreated syphilis does to the body, according to news reports exposing the study.

Many of the untreated men died by the time the experiment became public, and others went untreated for so long that they could not be treated. A class action lawsuit resulted in a $9 million settlement for the study’s unwitting participants and their families.

“We have a holistic health community that advocates strongly against vaccination,” Lancaster says. 

As infections and deaths related to the coronavirus continue to rise, medical researchers are scrambling to develop a vaccine, which ordinarily takes years. The goal, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is to produce a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American woman, is leading the National Institutes of Health’s search for a vaccine.

Although vaccination is considered an essential tool in bringing an end to the pandemic, some experts are concerned the accelerated timeline could risk sacrificing important scientific steps. Human trials have already begun, and a recent study indicates that llama blood could provide the key to developing a vaccine.

Nearly, 5,900 District residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and almost 300 have died, according to the D.C. government’s count. More than 1.2 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the death toll has risen to somewhere between 73,000 people and more than 75,000, depending on the source.