Union County virtual town hall tackles vaccinations in the black community

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — In an effort to get past misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, the Union County Board of County Commissioners hosted a virtual, interactive town hall Zoom meeting on Monday, March 29, aimed at exploring why communities of color are often apprehensive about taking the COVID-19 vaccine and helping to increase the vaccination rate in those communities.

Joining in on the discussion were panelists Dr. Chris T. Pernell of University Hospital, Dr. Omar M. Bey of RWJ Barnabas Health and Dr. Gerardo Capo of Trinitas Regional Medical Center.

Union County Commissioner Angela Garretson discussed the distrust of both the medical profession and of vaccines within the black community. Garretson also gave a rundown of the county’s success in opening the first drive-through COVID-19 test center during the height of the pandemic.

“We need to empower people with the necessary tools to protect ourselves, and that includes access to the facts,” Garretson said on Monday, March 29. “As the pandemic took hold, we’ve witnessed how the virus disproportionately impacts people of color. We also saw people of color were not getting the COVID-19 test in the same percentages as others.

“The Union County Board of Commissioners partnered with Kean University on March 23, 2020, and opened the first county-based drive-through COVID-19 test center at no cost. It was made available to every Union County resident,” she continued. “We also set up a mobile unit to bring free tests out to local communities on a walk-up basis. The walk-up service leveled the playing field in two ways. First, it opened up access to people who could otherwise have trouble getting to the test center. Second, the walk-up center also required no online appointments, so it made it easier for everyone to have access without internet access and get tested. We also established a contact-tracing unit last year, so we could speak with people on a one-to-one basis and provide them with essential information about protecting themselves and our communities.”

Commissioner and County Public Safety Chairperson Sergio Granados also discussed the county’s efforts to address vaccination inequities, saying that the goal of the county is to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, gender or color, has equal access to vaccinations.

“After opening our COVID-19 vaccination center at Kean University earlier this year, we opened up a satellite vaccine facility for Plainfield, to better see our communities of color and the western end,” Granados said on March 29. “We also continue to provide support in assistance of the vaccination centers in Elizabeth and Rahway, reaching underserved communities. To take it a step further, to ensure that we had a quick turnaround for testing, we’ve created a first-of-its-kind partnership with Kean University. We’ve created a laboratory that is capable of testing residents, processing their samples, gene sequencing for variant-strained research in coordination with our own contact-tracing program. This effort is the first of its kind in the entire nation and will also act as a source for revenue for decades to come.

“In addition to creating a web registration system, we also launched a call-in center here for residents so they can make appointments for the vaccine,” he continued. “This center is targeted to those who are seniors and those who have lacked access to the internet. You can’t have success without working together. Misinformation and fake news have a harmful impact on achieving goals, especially within our minority communities.”

Union County Board of County Commissioners Vice Chairperson Rebecca Williams explained that vaccine hesitancy stems from people of color being mistreated by medical professionals.

“This apprehension is likely related to lack of clear information, as well as lack of access to medical providers and routine health care,” Williams said on March 29. “We can point to the way in which people of color historically have been mistreated by the medical community, from the scientific racism of the 18th century … to the discipline of ethnology, which is a racialized pseudoscience that gained force in the antebellum 19th century.”

Williams then targeted Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “so-called father of gynecology,” who performed experimental medical procedures on enslaved black women without benefit of anesthesia and without their consent, as well as the forced sterilization of poor women and girls of color — black, Latino, and American Indian — and those with intellectual disabilities in the early decades of the 20th century. All of this was done for fear that they would pollute the gene pool, a crusade she said inspired Nazi doctors in their horrific experiments in the concentration camps during World War II.

“The infamous Tuskegee experiment that began in the early 1930s, wherein 400 black men, with latent syphilis, were left untreated, even after it became clear in the 1940s that penicillin was an effective treatment,” said Williams. “The experiment was performed so that scientists can examine the effects of the disease in longitudinal study that only ended after it came to light in 1972.”

“There are valid historical reasons for people of color to distrust the medical community and to have expressed concerns, even fears, about this vaccine,” Williams said. “These fears are exacerbated by our collective historical memory of the atrocities committed against our bodies in the name of scientific advancement and cures.”

Pernell began her portion of the town hall by discussing how the coronavirus had affected her own life.

“I lost my dad on April 13, 2020, and, in addition to losing my father, my sister is a COVID-19 long-hauler,” Pernell said on March 29. “I start there because, according to data, black women in particular are 2.5 times more likely to know someone who has died because of COVID-19, and, when we talk about the disproportionate impact that this pandemic has had on black and brown lives, I use that as an example.

“Given that sense of devastation and destruction, there’s a very holistic view of how racism has stained the American health care experience. That level of transparency and centering is what we need to promulgate anti-racism strategies,” she continued. “I say that to help us understand, we had our backs up against the wall for a very long time, and we all can talk about what we saw in our hospitals. Now, in this particular surge, we have additional tools within our tool kit and, as a public health physician, one of those tools that I spend a lot of time talking about is vaccines.

“I think it’s very important that every person acknowledges and understands we’re at different points on that decision journey. I call it a decision journey because I don’t think it’s our role as health care providers and public health practitioners to convince anyone, but to help you understand the facts and to help you understand the science, so you can make an informed choice or decision. Do I encourage everyone to get vaccinated? Yes. The three options that are currently approved — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are all safe. All three options have been proven through thorough research and science to be safe, and all three options are equivalent in their effectiveness at preventing death,” Pernell added.

Bey tackled the topic of misinformation, which has been causing real fear.

“There are many reasons for the black and brown community to mistrust,” Bey said on March 29. “There are no microchips, no one’s stealing your DNA when they give you the vaccine, no one’s taking a little blood for research purposes later on and no one’s giving you COVID-19 when they give you the vaccine. The vaccine is not a live virus, so no one can give you COVID when you get this vaccine.

“Misinformation is a big deal,” Bey continued. “What we’re talking about is social media, the internet — there are many areas where you can get misinformation. It doesn’t have to be the internet — it can be from people you know, your brother, your sister or family members, or even people you don’t know, in conversation.

“The best way to get your questions answered is to talk to your doctor or from a credible website,” he continued. “In my practice, the first thing I do to handle misinformation from patients is, I listen to them. What we’re trying to do, at this time, is get them to understand good medical information. Their fears are real. All three vaccines save lives 100 percent, and we know that, if you get COVID, your symptoms will be much, much milder, because you’ve gotten that vaccine. It’s all about saving lives.”