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Blacks working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic spoke with President Joe Biden on Tuesday, describing the struggles they faced during the COVID-19 crisis and encouraging anyone who can get vaccinated to do so.

During a virtual panel discussion that also featured a pharmacist, educator and firefighter, grocery store manager Jeff Carter said he knew several employees at Hy-Vee stores in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. , who had contracted COVID-19.

“Our employees are on the front line,” Carter said, noting that even with Plexiglas installed for cashiers and required masks in stores, their employees still risk their health by interacting with customers every day. “For many of us, the question was not whether we were going to catch the virus, but when.”

The United States passed the horrific milestone this week of half a million people die virus. Black Americans have been disproportionately affected: Blacks are three times more likely to be hospitalized than whites in the United States, and twice as likely to die.

Biden has offered a $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which is being negotiated in Congress.

“You all basically hold the country together,” Biden told workers on Tuesday, promising more support once the legislative package is passed. “You carry it on your back. So thank you for what you have done.

More … than 44 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Speaking on Tuesday, Biden urged anyone who qualifies to “get it as quickly as possible.”

The President, however, acknowledged that due to systemic racism in health care – or, as he put it, “the way American medicine has taken advantage of African Americans for experimentation for the past 100 years” – some black Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated.

Melanie Owens, a Chicago pharmacist and roundtable participant, fell ill with COVID-19 last March. Its pharmacy, located in a predominantly black community, administers the vaccine to people living in long-term care homes.

Owens was initially “more reluctant” to get the shot, she said, but she got the shot out of a sense of duty to protect the older residents she worked with in care facilities. After seeing Owens get the shot, some of the facility staff changed their minds and decided to get the shot as well.

“You may be scared and have questions, but do your due diligence,” Owens urged, noting that getting as many people vaccinated as possible is “a major key to helping us overcome this.”

“I encourage everyone to be aware that the vaccine is there to help,” she added. “Keep getting the vaccine out because it helps keep people alive and safe.”

The federal government has established guidelines for determining who should be prioritized for vaccines, but ultimately left it up to states to determine who is eligible and when. In some states, essential workers and vulnerable populations have been left out of vaccination campaigns so far.

Carmen Palmer, an educator in Columbus, Ohio, who joined the panel discussion, urged Ohio to include workers like her in its immunization plan alongside currently eligible Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators.

“I worked every day during the pandemic,” said Palmer, a single mother whose facility cares for the children of essential workers. “If I were to have COVID, or my kids, I wouldn’t have any other options.”

Demetris Alfred, a firefighter and emergency paramedic in St. Louis who was also on Tuesday’s call, warned that after the pandemic has passed, federal and local governments will have to continue funding emergency services, so that workers deemed “essential” in the pandemic do not face budget cuts or job losses.

“If I had a magic wand I would wave that wand to make sure we get the right funding to support our jobs,” said Alfred, “so that we can respond and help the citizens of our community.

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