Patricia Cummings, RN, shares why public vaccinations like the one she administered to Vice President Kamala Harris are crucial to increase trust of vaccines in communities of color and beyond.
Patrica Cummings, RN, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vice President Kamala Harris. Samuel Corum / Getty Images
For Patricia Cummings, RN, it was a moment she won’t forget. It was Dec. 29 and there she was, standing in front of cameras and reporters, as Kamala Harris, soon to be inaugurated as the 49th vice president of the United States — and the first woman and person of color to serve in that role — strode toward her to get her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Cummings said it was surreal to realize that she was living through and actually participating in a moment of history.
“I was extremely nervous, and it was definitely nerve-wracking, but on the day it happened, from the moment she walked into the room, our energies just meshed and I was a lot calmer,” said Cummings, 37, who works as a clinical nurse manager at United Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“She was very gracious and engaging, and it made my job a lot easier,” she told Healthline.
Striving to invoke positive change
Beyond her current job, Cummings is working toward her Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree at Walden University.
She said she first found out she would be administering Harris’ vaccination after inoculating senior leaders at the medical center.
The hospital’s chief medical officer called her on Christmas Day to ask whether she would be willing to inoculate the vice president-elect.
“Of course I would never give that opportunity up,” Cummings said. “I think the universe, all in all, just orchestrated it. I couldn’t really tell you exactly why or how.”
Born in Guyana, Cummings first moved to the United States about 20 years ago.
She said she was inspired to enter the medical field after observing her aunt, a registered nurse who earned her doctorate in nursing education from Walden.
Cummings would hear her aunt share her experiences working in a hospital in Maryland, and she knew then and there that she wanted to enter the medical field herself.
A nurse now for 15 years, Cummings said she’s especially “passionate about caring for diverse populations and invoking positive health-seeking behaviors” in the people she serves.
She said the most rewarding part of her job is when she sees patients “make the right choices,” and when she sees people who enter the hospital extremely sick walk out with renewed health.
Cummings sees herself as someone who can hopefully “invoke change,” and she applies that beyond those she cares for to her colleagues. She works as a nurse leader, mentoring and coaching other members of her nursing team.
COVID-19: An unprecedented challenge
Nothing has tested those leaderships skills more than this past year, Cummings said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges upon our healthcare system. Cummings said it was incredibly disorienting in those early days of March and April of last year with information “changing day to day.”
“Everything was extremely fluid, and I found myself as a nurse leader finding strategic ways to encourage my team. At some point they became burned out, at some point some were very scared. As I said, no one had experienced anything like this before,” Cummings recounted.
“Throughout the past 10 months, I have learned so much, and we have grown together as a team, not just locally, but just as healthcare [workers] in general,” she said.
Cummings recalled watching the initial, worrying reports out of New York City as the virus ran rampant in the early spring, and trying to read up as much about the new pandemic as she could.
Flash-forward to today, and she said with the new vaccines, we have a “solution for potentially ending this.” But Cummings said much more work needs to be done.
The United Medical Center serves predominantly Black neighborhoods in the southeastern part of the nation’s capital.
Cummings cited how Black and other marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but so far, are part of populations that are showing the lowest number of vaccinations.
There are serious precedents for this. Black and brown communities have long been skeptical of receiving mass inoculations.
The reason? A damaging, deadly history of medical racism.
This is evidenced starkly by the example of the Tuskegee experiments Trusted Source, but also by pervasive inequities in our healthcare system and beyond, from lack of quality, inclusive, affordable care to economic immobility imposed upon Black and brown communities.
Cummings said she herself had some hesitations around getting the vaccine.
She said she didn’t sign up to be inoculated right away because she wanted to “get more information” and do her due diligence by consulting with colleagues and reading the scientific research behind the development of the vaccine.
“As much as I am an advocate for people taking the vaccine, as a nurse, I understand that, ethically, it’s also important for them to make an informed decision,” Cummings explained.
She has received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but stressed that everyone seek out reliable sources of information, like from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local state departments of health, and the input of your own healthcare team.
Cummings noted that she didn’t experience any adverse reactions other than some tenderness in her arm for about 24 hours.
She added that the hesitancy among Black people in the United States to readily embrace the vaccine is attributable to the immense “skepticism and distress” they’ve experienced within the U.S. healthcare system.
Seeing prominent figures like Harris and former President Barack Obama receive the vaccine can help reduce this hesitancy, as well as having a spotlight on people like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the main researchers behind developing the vaccine.
Cummings said putting a microscope on the community itself can also help.
“I feel fine, and also feel better physically and psychologically, knowing I have some type of defense against this deadly virus that has taken over 400,000 lives, of mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, co-workers. People that we love dearly have been lost at the hand of this virus,” she said.
“If you have an option to protect yourself, why not take part in it if it’s offered to you.”
The power of the spotlight
When asked whether Harris shedding a spotlight on the vaccine can make a difference in and of itself, Cumming said an emphatic “yes.”
“Just speaking locally here, we received tons of calls from community members and healthcare workers outside of our community wanting to come to United Medical Center to be vaccinated. So, I definitely believe it’s helped boost the morale and trust in the efficacy of the vaccine with her coming here,” Cummings said.
Certainly, it was intentional on Harris’ part to spotlight the importance of the vaccine, especially by receiving it at a hospital that particularly serves Black communities. Upon getting the first dose from Cummings, Harris thanked the medical center “for the work that you do in Southeast (Washington) D.C., serving a community that is often overlooked.”
But there is one problem with these very public attempts to increase vaccine adoption: Relatively few people have any kind of access to the vaccine right now.
Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics at the department of population health at NYU Langone Health, told Healthline that given that the nation is facing vaccine shortages due to a lack of proper supply, any influence celebrity and politician endorsements can have today will be negligible given that “nobody is going to remember in 3 months what politicians did.”
He said we are “dug in a hole” nationally because of what “the previous administration did.”
“All that [former President] Trump did or didn’t do to argue about his legacy was vaccines. He failed to distribute vaccines which he put so much emphasis on,” Caplan said of why we don’t have enough doses to effectively distribute to enough people.
“I think that will ultimately destroy this reputation. He put all his chips on vaccines and then didn’t distribute them and didn’t have enough of them,” he said.
Caplan said there’s hope on the horizon in the form of more vaccines getting approved in the coming months. A Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine is looking promising, he said.
With more vaccines on the market, there will be more opportunity for distribution.
Caplan said the problem is having enough supplies and ways to effectively disseminate them.
If we can ramp up production and get vaccines out to more people under the new Biden administration, Caplan said there’s a chance life could start resembling something like “normal” by the fall.
As vaccines become more available, these kinds of public vaccination efforts made by celebrities and politicians will be effective, he said.
For instance, Caplan said these endorsements can be a powerful tool for encouraging people to receive the flu vaccine. But, then again, we haven’t faced flu vaccine shortages like we do with the current COVID-19 vaccines.
While the current state of vaccine availability means a lot of people Harris might reach won’t be able to see a vaccine anytime soon, Cummings said there is something important and crucial about hearing directly from community leaders — from people like her, too.
“I’m no celebrity, but I consider myself a trusted source as a registered nurse, as a healthcare provider,” Cummings explained. “I want to encourage all of us to continue to wear our masks, to continue to socially distance and avoid large gatherings. All of that does in fact help prevent the spread of the virus.”
An historic moment
On social media, Harris personally thanked Cummings. “On the frontlines of this fight are nurses like Patricia who administered my vaccine yesterday. As the daughter of immigrants from Guyana, Patricia has been working tirelessly to protect and save lives,” Harris wrote on Facebook. “To Patricia and all the nurses battling this pandemic — thank you.”
It’s all still surreal for Cummings when she reflects on it.
“I’m still pinching myself. It is truly surreal, and I did not realize the magnitude of my input — my little input at the time,” she said. “Fast-forward to now, it has sunken in that I was a part of history.”
“As I was looking at the inauguration and saw her sworn in, I got truly teary-eyed. For me it was so inspirational… that our vice president of these United States and potentially the second-most powerful person in the entire world was my patient, if you will,” she added.
“It’s humbling and truly an honor, and I’m so grateful.”
Written by Brian Mastroianni on January 26, 2021 — Fact checked by Maria Gifford