Empowering minority communities with COVID vaccine education
Written By Dr. Sharma E. Joseph | Published on Mass Live | Mar 31, 2021
A few weeks ago, I received a call from a local activist. Her daughter was hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19. She had likely acquired the virus while distributing hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment to residents in her community. Suddenly, her eldest child had gone from neighborhood volunteer, recent college graduate, and aspiring educator to isolated in a room with no visitors, on oxygen, short of breath, and receiving medications she had never heard of. She needed assurance that the medical team was providing all available therapy. Burying her daughter was not an option.
This is just one of the many families forever changed by this virus. As an intensive care unit physician, I have witnessed heartbreaking suffering this past year. Those in my community, Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities, have been particularly affected. Centuries of unequal access to healthcare, fair housing, education, and economic opportunity have made escaping exposure, hospitalization, and death from the coronavirus an almost insurmountable challenge. The pandemic is expected to shorten life expectancy among Blacks by 2.10 years and 3.05 years among Latinos. Mitigating the disproportionate impacts of the virus and preventing future widening of racial health disparities rests with vaccination against COVID-19.
Unfortunately, minority communities, especially Blacks, have been the target of misinformation campaigns that capitalize on their mistrust in the healthcare system. Anti-vaccination groups also rely on the fact that many Black people do not have a regular provider they trust for clinical information. The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain live virus. More broadly, vaccines do not contain microchips, do not integrate into human DNA, and do not cause autism. The truth is, vaccines remain one of the most effective public health measures to combat infectious diseases. If we don’t get immunized, diseases recur. Many important questions asked by patients and their families are: Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe? Which vaccine should I get? Should I wait for the best one? Are there side effects?
All three vaccines available in the United States – Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – were developed using the highest safety standards and put through rigorous trials that included diverse demographics. There are many numbers being thrown at us about effectiveness, but in terms of what we care most about – preventing hospitalization and death – all the vaccines are 100% effective. We are in a race to vaccinate all of Massachusetts, and the country; so the point is whichever vaccine is offered to you, it works, take it!
Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines require two doses. Johnson & Johnson’s requires one. Having different types of vaccines available for use, especially ones with different storage and handling requirements can offer more options and flexibility for local vaccine providers. Access for those who lack transportation to mass vaccination sites, including many in communities of color, the homeless, elderly, and migrant workers is key to a successful vaccination effort. The latest data continue to show whites are receiving vaccine doses in higher percentages in Massachusetts – 16% compared to 12% for Blacks and 6% for Latinos. With three vaccines now approved, organizers can leverage each vaccine manufacturer’s strengths in achieving equity.
I have heard firsthand from minorities who feel that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is inferior and being made available to them out of convenience because it is only one dose and can be easily stored. I cannot emphasize enough that when it comes to hospitalization and death, these three vaccines work equally well.
Finally, if you experience symptoms after vaccination that is actually good. It is a sign your body is developing antibodies to protect you against future COVID-19 infection. They are generally mild and the last one to two days – fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and chills are most common. Severe allergic reactions are rare.
Vaccination is the only tool we have to prevent you from developing severe disease and dying. It is the only means of preventing your loved ones from suffering immeasurable grief from your loss of life. With COVID-19 variants on the rise, which may result in more severe disease, we must embrace the incredible feat of scientists and reduce COVID-19 transmission.
Sharma E. Joseph, MD is Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Anesthesiologist and Critical Care Physician, Tufts Medical Center and a student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She also currently serves as Director, Health Policy and Advocacy at the New England Medical Association.