New York, New York – It has been 45 years since then-President Gerald Ford first recognized Black History Month and called for the need to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Every U.S. president since Ford has officially designated February as Black History Month. Black history is American history and the Puerto Rican Bar Association recognizes the ever-present need to acknowledge the accomplishments, contributions, and tragedies of African Americans.
As we remain in the grips of a once-in-a-century pandemic, it is apt to recognize Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, who was a surgeon practicing medicine in New York City in the first half of the 20th Century and chairman of the NAACP for nearly two decades. Born in LaGrange, Georgia, Dr. Wright joined the Army Medical Corps after he completed medical school, and served during World War I where he introduced intradermal vaccination for smallpox. After the war, Dr. Wright set up a private practice in Harlem and became the first African-American on the surgical staff of Harlem Hospital. He was a strong advocate for racial equality in medicine and was a pioneer in clinical antibiotic research. Besides antibiotic treatment, Dr. Wright’s medical research was also influential in areas including cancer treatment, chemotherapy, treating head injuries, and treating bone fractures.
Racial inequality still exists today in medicine. We see it in the recently disclosed data report from the New York City Department of Health on the COVID-19 vaccinations. Although 28% of the COVID-19 deaths in NYC were of African Americans (22% of the City’s population), only 15% of the vaccinations administered in the City thus far have been to African Americans. We see this same disparity in our community. Latinos represent 34% of the COVID-19 deaths in NYC (29% of the City’s population) but also only 15% of the vaccinations administered. Conversely, 48% of the vaccinations have gone to white recipients, although 27% of all those who died in NYC were white (32% of the population).
This disparity must be immediately and genuinely addressed by the Department of Health and the Mayor’s Office. It is not merely about “education” and “outreach” as is often the excuse in blaming disadvantaged communities. Vaccines must be made available to healthcare providers who service African American and Latino communities in New York City and actively administered to those communities.
Dr. Wright championed against such inequities in medicine. As we celebrate Black History Month, we as a City, a State, and a Country cannot allow these inequities to persist.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association