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Town Hall Addresses Vaccine Hesitancy Among People of Color

Doctors presented a virtual forum on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine at a town hall Monday night.

Black Americans have suffered disproportionate effects of COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Black community faces the highest risk of any racial or ethnic group in the country. Black Americans are more likely to contract COVID, to be hospitalized for it, and to die from it.

But despite the threats posed by the virus, Black Americans are among the most hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Recent polls have shown that as many as 35% of Black adults are not planning to be vaccinated. 

In a virtual town hall on Monday night, McLean County residents of color were given the opportunity to discuss the vaccine with doctors of color. Hosted by the B-N chapter of the NAACP and Healthy Living with a Vision, the forum offered residents  “safe and trusting environment” to ask questions and address concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Dr. James Thomson, an allergist and immunologist who practices in Chicago, began the event by noting that Monday marked a grim milestone in the United States: the pandemic has now claimed 500,000 American lives. 

Thomson said that number further underscored the need for informed decisions about receiving the vaccine. He was joined on the panel by several local health professionals, including: Dr. Ansel Johnson, Dr. Gustavo Galue, Dr. Dele Ogunleye, Dr. Anita Tillman, and Dr. Dionna Pendelton. 

Responding to anonymous submissions, the panel addressed the following questions:

Can I get COVID from the vaccine?

No, said Thomson. In the past, vaccines contained a weakened or inactivated virus particle in order to establish immunity within the body. But the COVID vaccine--including both the Pfizer and Moderna versions--does not contain the virus. The COVID vaccine contains only a small strip of genetic code that makes spike proteins. 

“The take-home message here is that the vaccines cannot cause you to have COVID-19. They do not have the genetic code for the entire virus. So there’s no way you can get the COVID-19 disease from the two vaccines that are available now,” Thomson said. 

Should pregnant women get the vaccine?

Yes, said Ogunleye, a gynecologist and urogynecologist with Advanced Women’s Healthcare in Bloomington. Ogunleye said he often encounters anxiety in his patients. “I have told them categorically that they should get the vaccine,” he said. 

The biggest risk to pregnant women, said Ogunleye, is contracting the virus and ending up in the ICU on a ventilator. And the best way to protect against the worst ramifications of COVID is to get the vaccine. 

While it’s true the COVID vaccine hasn’t been tested on pregnant women, no vaccines are studied in pregnant populations. “But we have a lot of evidence from previous vaccines that show us that this is very safe,” Ogunleye said. 

Ogunleye said the protection provided by the vaccine benefits not only expectant mothers, but babies as well. “One of the best ways in which they can protect their babies, or protect their children when they are born, is to be able to develop the antibodies. Hopefully then they can transfer those antibodies to the baby,” he said. 

Is the vaccine dangerous if I have other health problems?

If you have health problems, COVID poses a greater threat to you than the vaccine. “I put it on a balance,” said Galue. So far, the vaccine has been administered to more than 40 million people in the United States, with few reported problems and no reported fatalities. 

“The vaccine has proven to be safe in almost any situation--except for anaphylaxis and allergies,” Galue said. “You can give it to patients who have heart disease, COPD, diabetes (in control), people who’ve had a stroke.”

And it’s the people with serious medical conditions who are most vulnerable to the effects of the virus, said Galue, making them “precisely” the people who should be getting the vaccine. 

Are the side effects dangerous?

No, said all of the doctors. In fact, side effects are a good thing. They’re a sign that your body is responding to the vaccine. 

Side effects are typically mild and include things like a sore arm, fatigue, and chills. 

Pendleton, a hospitalist with Carle Family Medicine, said when she told her family she would be part of the first wave of vaccinations in McLean County, they were apprehensive. And though she did experience a sore arm and chills, she is fully vaccinated and her family is now “on board.” 

Will the vaccine cause an allergic reaction?

Johnson said that a few serious allergic reactions have been recorded. No one is reported to have died as a result of an allergic reaction. People with “multiple” allergies to food and/or medications seem to be more susceptible to allergic reactions to the vaccine, Johnson said. But even those allergies don’t preclude a person from getting the shot. Vaccines will simply need to be administered under careful medical supervision in those cases.

Johnson said people with penicillin allergies are able to receive the vaccine because it doesn’t contain any antibiotic residue. 

The only contraindication--or case in which a COVID vaccine shouldn’t be given--is if a person had an extreme reaction to the first dose. 

Was the vaccine rushed?

Both the Pfizer and Moderna version were granted emergency use authorization by the FDA. But that isn’t a new practice, said Thomson. And though vaccines were developed specifically to address the novel coronavirus that emerged in 2020, they were are based on research that dates back more than 20 years. 

Advances in technology and the manufacture of vaccines have saved considerable time in producing new vaccines, said Thomson, adding science has advanced in other ways.

“People of color are well represented throughout the process of research, development, and administration of the current vaccines,” he said. 

“If you went into a laboratory several years ago, in the 1950’s it would look like this,” said Thomson, showing a vintage photograph of white-coated, white researchers in a lab. “If you go in many of the labs today, you see more diverse mix of people that are working and doing research.”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.