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Health officials address COVID-19 vaccine concerns

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Centuries of medical mistreatment and trauma have left many African Americans and other minority populations hesitant to get vaccinations. This poses a significant issue in the fight against COVID-19, as public health officials urge Americans to get vaccinated as soon as doses become available to everyone.

In a webinar Dec. 22, Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, and Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Department of Health, explained the side effects of two COVID-19 vaccinations — from Pfizer and Moderna — and what the vaccine rollout will look like after health care workers are vaccinated.

Caine began her presentation discussing the Tuskegee experiment, which started in 1932 and prevented Black men from getting adequate treatment for syphilis. This experiment, along with many other historical examples, furthered the mistrust of medical professionals in the Black community, which still has fatal consequences today. 

According to the World Health Organization, roughly 40% of African Americans get a flu shot every year as opposed to 50% of white Americans, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Black and brown Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 42% of Black Americans plan on taking the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available, citing mistrust and a misunderstanding of what a vaccine actually is.

“The Tuskegee experiment changed everything about research,” Caine said. “Now, we have institutional review boards, ethics boards that makes sure all of the research is ethical, and patients have to give consent before any treatment. These were put into place to make sure Tuskegee never happened again.”

Caine used her time to explain what the COVID-19 vaccination is and to reiterate that patients do not get a live virus when they are vaccinated. Instead, the two-dose vaccine is messenger RNA that sparks an immune response.

According to Caine, side effects from either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine include pain at the injection site, fatigue, chills, fever and headaches. A small number of people have experienced Bell’s Palsy and anaphylactic shock.

Of the 30,000 people tested in clinical trials, Caine said only three developed Bell’s Palsy, which is a similar ratio of a normal population with or without a vaccine. As for anaphylactic shock, those with a history of allergic reactions are told to consult with their primary care physician before getting vaccinated. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System is used to track side effects from vaccines.

Weaver’s presentation focused on Indiana’s rollout plan for the vaccine once more doses become available. Currently, only frontline health care workers are eligible to be vaccinated. Weaver said the next two groups to be eligible will be people older than 75 — to decrease the state’s mortality rate — and essential workers to decrease harm to the local economy.

Currently, only those 18 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine is available for those 12 and older. Trials with younger children are in the beginning stages, and COVID-19 vaccines are not currently recommended for children.

United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who previously served as Indiana State Commissioner of Health, addressed the webinar from St. Anthony Hospital in Chicago, where the intensive care unit is full. Every patient and worker in intensive care, Adams said, are people of color.

“It’s important for me to be in a place like this,” Adams said. “Way back in February, I was talking to folks at the NAACP and raising alarms about the potential this virus had to wreak havoc on minority communities. I knew diseases that impact all Americans almost always disproportionally affect people of color.”

Adams, who has worked with Dr. Anthony Fauci on the national COVID-19 task force and was vaccinated alongside Vice President Mike Pence on Dec. 18, said he’s worked to address “preexisting social conditions,” such as housing, access to health care and jobs and transportation, while on the task force. He said addressing these issues can mitigate health issues such as hypertension and diabetes, which disproportionately affect African Americans. Both of these illnesses increase the chance of death from COVID-19.

“The finish line is just around the corner,” Adams said. “But we can’t stop running. … I got my vaccine to protect myself as a health care worker, and as a husband of a wife who is battling cancer. If you don’t get vaccinated for yourself, realize you’re doing it for those around you.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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