Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt: A Trusted Messenger of Vaccine Truth
NAACP Leader Uses Science Facts to Overcome Inoculation Fears
By Nick Welsh | April 8, 2021
Over the years, Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt has heard pretty much everything. For more than three decades, she functioned as both investigator and chief investigator with the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office, during which time she worked intimately with people charged with extremely serious crimes. Some, it turns out, were extremely guilty; some only partially so; and others, it also turns out, were actually and factually innocent. Either way, it was Lyons-Pruitt’s job to make sure they all got the best defense the Public Defender’s Office could possibly give.
Today, Lyons-Pruitt — president of the Santa Maria and Lompoc chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — is a major player in a multipronged, multicultural task force created to make sure people of color get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Santa Barbara County.
And she’s still hearing pretty much everything.
“One woman I talked with told me she heard 500 people died after taking the vaccine in Los Angeles. ‘They’ didn’t want the word to get out, so ‘they’ were burning the bodies,” she recounted. The woman who told her this, Lyons-Pruitt explained, “heard it from her sister’s girlfriend’s brother, who was a health-care worker.”
In conversation, Lyons-Pruitt is calm, deliberate, precise, and inviting — not given to theatrical expressions of incredulity. But this one was a whopper. “Her sister’s … girlfriend’s … brother,” she repeated quietly, leaving space between each word to underscore the point. “There’s a whole lot of misinformation out there,” she said. “A whole lot.”
Some people, she noted, have expressed fear that the vaccine will “change their genetics from Black to white.” Others are concerned that some sort of computer chip will be implanted. Or, less fantastically, that the vaccine is simply not safe because it was produced too fast for proper safeguards to have been observed.
On occasion, Lyons-Pruitt hears concern — even from some relatives — that it was the vaccine that killed baseball immortal Henry “Hank” Aaron. “I just try to get them the real information,” she said. Aaron died peacefully in his sleep on January 22, 17 days after having received his second dose. Anti-vaxxers, like Robert Kennedy Jr., seized upon this time proximity to suggest Aaron — who had sought to bridge the gap in vaccine acceptance between Black and white Americans — had been done in by his final injection. The real information, at least according to officials with the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta — where Aaron was vaccinated — and the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office is that an examination of Aaron’s body showed no evidence of an allergic reaction or any “reaction to any substance which might be attributable to recent vaccine distribution.”
Mostly, Lyons-Pruitt said, she’s not encountering tidal waves of resistance; to the extent there’s hesitancy out there, she said it’s of the wait-and-see variety. But with the presence of variants throughout Santa Barbara County now well documented — and the disproportionately high incidence of comorbidities among people of color — delay and deliberation are luxuries few can afford.
Because of variants, public health experts warn, it will be harder to achieve herd immunity; instead of 70 percent inoculation rates, they now contend the threshold for vaccination will be 85 percent. Should those numbers prove accurate, that makes the issue of “vaccine hesitancy” all the more urgent.
A Very Bad Year
The real problem for people of all races — until recently — has been lack of supply. That and the exasperation many people have experienced attempting to navigate the online application process to secure an appointment. When a new shipment of vaccine arrives in Santa Barbara County, Lyons-Pruitt works to get people with limited tech savvy signed up with CVS or Rite Aid.
Mostly, she spends her time reaching out to pastors of Black churches in hopes that they, in turn, will encourage their own congregations to get vaccinated. Or speaking via Zoom at various Town Hall forums organized by the County Public Health Department. Or finding credible sources of information so that those with doubts can make up their own minds. “I try to get them the latest scientific research,” she said.
Early on, she would say, “I wish my sister had had that opportunity,” referring to her younger sister, Essie, who died of COVID early last August, months before the vaccine became available in December. She no longer goes that route. “Now, I just give them the information and try to answer their questions,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to tell my story to scare them into making a decision.”
Still, it’s a scary story. Essie stayed in Mississippi, where she worked as a senior administrator at a residential facility for those with mental disabilities. Lyons-Pruitt had always assumed the facility where her sister worked had been shut down by the pandemic. She found out otherwise only a week before her sister died. Essie, Lyons-Pruitt said, laughed off her concerns at the time, stating all precautions — temperatures, social distancing — were being taken.
There was an outbreak at the home, and Essie experienced symptoms severe enough to warrant hospitalization. There, she tested negative for COVID but was treated for dehydration and released. Relatives, alarmed by the persistence of Essie’s symptoms, took her to another hospital, where this time she tested positive and was treated for nearly five days. She was released with oxygen only when she could hold down fluids. For nearly three days, she did fine. But when Essie tried returning to work, she had to return home; she couldn’t hold food or fluids down, and breathing was a struggle. A few days later, she was dead.
“She died with oxygen on her,” Lyons-Pruitt recounted. “It was devastating.”
Essie, Lyons-Pruitt noted, was in the first 134,000 Americans to die of COVID. For the first 100,000 victims, public health experts say there just wasn’t enough information available. After that, “A lot of people died deaths that could have been prevented,” Lyons-Pruitt said. “2020 was not kind.”
GOP Big Doubters
For every white person to be infected with COVID throughout Santa Barbara, there have been more than five people of color to test positive. The same grim disproportionality holds true for people hospitalized, placed in ICUs, and who ultimately die. But when it comes to vaccinations, the numbers skew dramatically the other way. Although Black and Latino people make up 50 percent of the county’s population, they have received 25 percent of the doses — 35,000 — administered so far. By contrast, white people — who make up 43 percent of the population — have received 42,000 doses.
Geographically, the tilt is even more striking. While North County has overwhelmingly absorbed the brunt of the COVID crisis in terms of infections and hospitalizations, South County has received the lion’s share of the vaccinations — 47,000 compared to 20,000 in North County — and many white people driving up from South County are among those numbers. But that may be changing.
In early California surveys, 50 percent of Black respondents indicated they either would definitely — or probably — not get vaccinated. Today, that number has dropped below 30 percent.
Today, Republicans have emerged as clear frontrunners among the most viscerally resistant to vaccination. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans statewide stated they either would definitely or probably not get vaccinated. In Santa Barbara County, that translates to 24,000 adults. While Republicans were not targeted by the COVID vaccine task force — with no “trusted messengers” enlisted to spread the word — County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso reached out to right-wing government watchdog Andy Caldwell and recently appeared on his radio show.
Living in the Deep South
Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt grew up in a small Mississippi community of fewer than 900 inhabitants in Neshoba County. It achieved international notoriety in 1964 when the search for the bodies of three murdered freedom riders — two white and one Black — gave rise to one of the most intensely scrutinized manhunts in civil rights history.
When her parents moved to Chicago for work, Lyons-Pruitt and her sister were raised by their grandparents. Three cousins joined them when they were effectively rendered orphans after their father murdered their mother. Lyons-Pruitt recalls her grandfather as tall, slim, and rock-hard, having worked his entire life keeping the railroad tracks “in tip-top shape.” Her grandfather, who had a 3rd-grade education, helped her with her homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Lyons-Pruitt was born just a few months after Rosa Parks refused to take a seat in the back of the bus, sparking the now-historic bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. For Lyons-Pruitt, the “Colored” and “White” signs posted outside of public restrooms and over water fountains are not artifacts of a bygone age but vivid childhood memories. And those signs would still be up when she left Mississippi in 1973.
From kindergarten through 5th grade, Lyons-Pruitt attended an all-Black school. From 6th to 9th, she was bused to an all-Black school in the nearby town of Brookhaven. She could have attended an integrated junior high school closer to home. But when a group of school administrators — all white — showed up seeking her grandfather’s permission, he turned them down. District administrators were cherry-picking which Black students they deemed acceptable to mix with white students. Lyons-Pruitt, it turns out, was one of them. Her grandfather would not be party to a charade designed to circumvent a school desegregation decree issued by the United States Supreme Court in 1954. Her schoolbooks, she recalled, bore the smudge marks of a separate-but-equal education — old and worn out.
It wasn’t until 1970, when Lyons-Pruitt was in high school, that things changed. “It took them 15 years to get around to integrating,” she noted with a laugh. Going to school with white kids, she would be surprised to discover, wasn’t all that different. Black kids, she said, hung out with other black kids; white kids did the same. “Everyone was cordial,” she said. At prom time, however, it got awkward. Would Black and white students be allowed to shake it on the same dance floor? School administrators stepped in to finesse that question. “We had a prom with no dances,” Lyons-Pruitt said.
When it came to the history of race in America, Lyons-Pruitt said her education left her clueless. “We were never told about slavery or lynching,” she said. “I didn’t even know about the Holocaust.” What Lyons-Pruitt would learn about the civil rights movement, she said, she picked up from her grandfather. If Martin Luther King Jr. was on the TV, she recalled, he wouldn’t miss it. Watching intently, he’d sit up in his chair, she said, and “just laugh.” Her grandfather grew up at a time when a Black man risked death for looking a white person in the eye when passing on the street.
In 1973, Lyons-Pruitt moved to Santa Maria, where her uncle — her mother’s sister’s husband — taught at Santa Maria High School. What did she think of her new home? “I’m sure I loved it,” she said. “It was a lot bigger and had a lot more culture than where I lived before.” Lyons-Pruitt still lives in Santa Maria in the same house she has lived in since 1989.
Lyons-Pruitt attended college, first at Allan Hancock and then at Cal State Long Beach. She studied criminology, hoping to become an FBI agent. The FBI was not hiring women, however, except in clerical positions. So upon graduation, she worked as a hostess at a Denny’s in Long Beach, moved back to Santa Maria, and found herself working at a McDonald’s, though not for long.
Lyons-Pruitt quickly snagged a job with the County of Santa Barbara Probation Department evaluating court-mandated drunk-driving programs for the quality of their curriculum and how effectively they kept students from becoming repeat offenders. She stayed with the Probation Department about five years.
During that time, Lyons-Pruitt was called to serve as a juror in a trial for someone accused of murdering a 2-year-old child. The experience would spur her to apply for a job as a welfare fraud investigator and, in 1984, as an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office. “My philosophy more aligned with the mission of the Public Defender’s office,” she said. “It’s more about treating people with compassion and respect.”
By 1995, Lyons-Pruitt was named the department’s chief investigator, making her the first African-American woman in California to serve in that position. Since then, she has worked on many of the department’s hairiest, scariest cases.
As an investigator, Lyons-Pruitt described herself as a “fierce advocate for the defense.” She handled a lot of homicide cases and more than a few death penalty defenses. “No matter what happened, I could always see the humanity in people,” she said. “And I could see both sides.”
By 2016, the years had taken their toll. “Every part of my body was dragging.” That’s when Lyons-Pruitt pulled the plug on a county career spanning 37 and a half years. But she hardly retired. Instead, she threw herself even more energetically into her work with the Santa Maria and Lompoc branch of the NAACP, of which she’s been president for 14 years.
Working with the NAACP
has necessarily involved forming partnerships. She remembers a time when Santa Barbara’s Black population was 14,000; today, countywide, it’s down to 9,000, reflecting the severe exodus inflicted by the county’s ever-escalating housing prices. In many communities, Black people make up less than 2 percent of the population. The population is so small that it almost doesn’t show at all in the county’s many COVID tabulations; the number of Black people vaccinated was zero for many months, but it has now increased to .84 percent. Lyons-Pruitt contends these numbers undercount the real impact of COVID on the Black community and that better numbers need to be kept.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — this, Lyons-Pruitt makes a point to be everywhere. Or at least she makes it seem that way. It’s not uncommon for her to make five community meetings in a day, via Zoom of course: multiple school board meetings, meetings about changes to Santa Maria’s general plan, meetings about housing, and, more recently, town hall meetings.
The NAACP is part of a coalition working to ensure proper medical care for inmates in Lompoc’s federal penitentiary and at Santa Barbara’s County Jail. Well before COVID, the NAACP was working behind the scenes to push alternatives to incarceration. “When you sentence someone to 10 years and lock ’em in a cage, that’s a different culture,” she said. “It’s survival of the fittest. They come out, and we expect them to be adjusted to our ways. It’s not going to happen.”
On the books, the local chapters boast 690 members, but not all pay dues. About half that many are actually active, Lyons-Pruitt said. About 50 can be counted to show up at meetings.
Of course, nothing is the same since last May’s murder of George Floyd, and Lyons-Pruitt makes it a point to call it “murder.” Since the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin started, it’s come out that he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, longer even than the eight minutes and 46 seconds initially estimated last May. “I couldn’t sleep for an entire week after that,” Lyons-Pruitt said. Especially horrifying, she said, was how Chauvin kept his hands in his pockets the entire time. And according to the testimony of a lieutenant with the Minneapolis Police Department, Chauvin kept his knee of Floyd’s neck a full two minutes after Floyd became unresponsive.
Last May, Lyons-Pruitt and the NAACP organized protests in Santa Maria and Lompoc, among other communities. “This is happening again. When is it going to end?” she demanded. “We’re done dying.”
Her demand was not so much to “defund the police” but to “reimagine the police.” By that, Lyons-Pruitt called for the abolition of the chokehold and the creation of a civilian review board with subpoena power to investigate officers accused of abuse.
Lyons-Pruitt currently sits on the Santa Maria Police Department’s police advisory board, but advisory boards, she noted, lack real authority. Chauvin had no doubt received all the training he needed, she argued, and read all the guidelines. Santa Maria’s own police department had been rife with allegations of excessive force prior to the house-cleaning administered by the city’s two most recent — and reform-minded — chiefs. “No one is immune,” she reminded people in recent interviews with other media outlets. “Santa Maria had its own problems.”
In a public statement last June, she declared, “It is time to reimagine a police department where there are rules in place, better rules than we have now.” Only by doing so, she argued, can “the number of murders against unarmed people of color” be significantly reduced. Addressing the Santa Barbara County Supervisors a few days later, she borrowed a line from Benjamin Franklin, stating, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Lyons-Pruitt was just 25 miles away from Sanford, Florida, when a trigger-happy neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin in 2012, claiming self-defense. When the not-guilty verdict came out, “It was deeply disturbing,” she said. Zimmerman disregarded explicit instructions to back away from Martin, whom he shot principally because he was a Black male wearing a hoodie. Lyons-Pruitt quickly issued a press release denouncing the verdict, but the situation caused her daughter — now 39 — alarm. “I got hate mail,” Lyons-Pruitt recounted. “You have to be careful. It’s different for me; I’m Black. Some of these people are crazy.”
Lyons-Pruitt said there’s been a significant influx of new, younger members in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Some, she noted, are considerably more outspoken and confrontational than she is. “I’m old-school,” she said.
Nothing could be more old-school than her organization’s name, anchored by the word “colored.” Lyons-Pruitt makes no apologies. “The organization as formed in 1909 in response to all the lynching going on. The word ‘colored’ was better than the N-word.” Since then, the word has shifted from “colored” to “black” to “African American” and now back to “Black.” The NAACP, she said, can’t be changing its name accordingly. “It’s our brand,” she said. If younger members want to change it later on, that’s up to them.
In the meantime, Lyons-Pruitt is collaborating actively with groups like CAUSE, IMPORTA, and MICOP — short for the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project — enlisted by county health officials to reach out to underserved and vulnerable communities in North County such as farmworkers. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the effort.
Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson, whose district includes Orcutt and the surrounding area, said the county — and the farmworkers themselves — would have been better served reaching out more directly to the growers and farmers than to an organization rooted in the political activist culture of UCSB. “I’m not saying they don’t have a constituency up here,” he said, “but it’s relatively small.” Lyons-Pruitt takes issue with Supervisor Nelson’s assessment; the organizers she knows have long been rooted in North County, not UCSB.
Nelson also expressed frustration with the county’s outreach efforts, describing them as disjointed and top-down. “They aren’t asking us; they’re telling us,” he said. North County health officials, he acknowledged, are working closely with the growers and shippers and the Agriculture Commissioner’s office, but not so much with individual growers with hundreds if not thousands of workers. With many growers reporting a 20 percent shortage of workers, he stated, employers can’t afford not to take good care of their workers. “If I’m being a jerk employer, my workers can always get another job across the street,” he said.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who represents much of Santa Maria, echoed Nelson’s concern that the farmers have not been enlisted as aggressively as they could be. And people are frustrated by how hard it is to sign up. His own father — former Santa Maria mayor Larry Lavagnino — threatened to give up because the process required downloading a screenshot of his insurance card. Lavagnino said, “I don’t know how to make it better, but it’ s far more complicated than it needs to be.”
As far as Lyons-Pruitt goes, Lavagnino had nothing but praise. “She qualifies as a ‘trusted messenger’ for all of Santa Maria, not just the Black or minority communities,” he said. “She is the voice of reason. You can build off what she’s telling you.”
Last week, county Public Health officers opened a vaccine tent in Lompoc. This week, they’re doing the same in Santa Maria. In a week, the vaccine will be opened up to people 16 years and older. Lyons-Pruitt and the rest of the coalition will be waiting and watching. If not enough people show up, she said, they’ll launch a door-to-door campaign, dropping off brochures, and perhaps get vaccine stations set up in barber shops and hair salons.
Even though she’s got both shots now, Lyons-Pruitt has been laying low, leaving home — which she shares with three dogs — only to get groceries. “I still social distance, double mask, and stay within my bubble,” she said. If and when the COVID curtain lifts, she’s pretty clear on how she’ll celebrate. “Take a break, visit family in Mississippi and Chicago, and play bingo in Vegas!”