UNION COUNTY, NJ — “In this crisis, I lost my dad and, in addition to losing my father, my sister is a COVID-19 ‘long hauler.’ And just before the new year, I lost two more cousins,” said Dr. Chris Pernell, the chief strategic integration and health equity officer at University Hospital in Newark, during Monday’s virtual COVID-19 vaccine town hall hosted by the Union County Board of Commissioners.
“I start there because according to data, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to know someone who has died because of coronavirus,” she said.
Having experienced so much loss, Pernell said she would not have risked more lives in her family when she participated in a clinical trial for a COVID vaccine without being sure it was safe.
“There were no corners cut in the scientific process,” she said. “There were thorough checks and balances, there were thorough safety reviews.”
Monday’s town hall was held to address vaccine misinformation and disparities in access to the vaccine in communities of color. Pernell spoke to these concerns along with Dr. Omar Bey of RWJ Barnabas Health, a pulmonologist who practices in Maplewood; and Dr. Gerardo Capo, an oncologist at Trinitas Medical Center.
According to Commissioner Sergio Granados, chair of the board’s public safety committee, out of a total of 49,000 people the county has vaccinated through its programs, 50% have been Caucasian, 10% Hispanic or Latinx, 13% African American and 5% Asian.
County Commissioner Vice-Chair Rebecca Williams, who moderated the discussion, said vaccine hesitancy in communities of color is likely related to lack of clear information and lack of access to medical providers and routine healthcare.
“We can point to the way in which people of color historically have been mistreated by the medical community” to understand how misinformation takes hold, Williams said.
Williams explained that “father of gynecology” J. Marion Sims performed his experimental medical procedures on enslaved Black women without anesthesia and without their consent, and in the unethical “Tuskegee Experiment,” which began in the 1930s, 400 Black men with latent syphilis were left untreated, even after it became clear that penicillin was an effective treatment.
“Sadly, though these fears are entirely justified, the current insidious and deliberate dissemination of misinformation through YouTube and other social media platforms exploits the same fears and diminishes the potential positive results of medical marvels, like the COVID-19 vaccine, in our communities of color,” Williams said.
Dr. Omar Bey agreed that there are many reasons for distrust, and dispelled some common myths which he said can be spread through the internet, in families and through everyday conversation.
“Let me just put it straight: 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 and no one’s giving you COVID when they give you the vaccine,” Bey said.
The doctors also explained how the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines work and answered questions at the event.
How do the vaccines work? Bey said our bodies have no automatic defense against COVID-19, so a vaccine or series of vaccines gets our cells ready to recognize it.
“It tricks the body into thinking that a virus is coming in, and at that particular point you really start developing a lot of defense cells, called antibodies, ready to attack if this virus ever comes into your body again,” he said.
Capo said the vaccines give the cells instructions on how to make a protein unique to COVID-19, so the body can build T-cells that fight against it. Pernell compared the lab-created vaccine component to a “recipe” or a “Snapchat message,” since the protein the body creates in response to the vaccine will disappear, but the immune system will remember it.
Is one vaccine better than the other? Pernell said the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been proven through thorough research are all equally effective at preventing death.
The three options have similar levels of effectiveness in preventing severe disease, keeping those who get vaccinated out of hospitals and intensive care units, according to Pernell, who said hospitalization rates have been three to four times higher in Black and brown communities.
“Right now, we have a scarcity of vaccines and are recommending that you get whatever vaccine is available to you,” Capo said.
What side effects should I expect? “The most common side effect is soreness and the injection site,” said Capo. When he got the vaccine, he said, he experienced muscle aches and a low-grade fever, but felt better the next day. Many others have experienced similar symptoms, he said, but they are “things that often will go away with Tylenol or ibuprofen and universally are completely resolved within 24 hours.”
According to Bey, long-term side effects of the vaccines are not yet known, but “there’s the devil we know and the devil we don’t know. The devil we know is that if you get COVID, and you have some of these comorbidities, there’s a good chance you’ re going to have a severe case and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to die … it’s either live or not live, and that’s what it comes down to.”
Do the vaccines cause infertility? Can I get the vaccine if I am pregnant? Capo said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to never enter the nucleus of the cell, where our DNA is stored, so they cannot affect fertility.
He said it is recommended for those who are pregnant to discuss getting the vaccines with their obstetricians, but it is considered safe if your obstetrician agrees.
“There’s even data to show that the antibodies are being shared with your child if the woman breastfeeds,” Capo said.
Pernell said the women who became incidentally pregnant during the course of the clinical trials did not have worse birth outcomes, and there have been no adverse reactions associated with the tens of thousands of pregnant women in the populations that have already been vaccinated.
She and Bey said that when pregnant women are infected with COVID, it can lead to worse outcomes for them and their pregnancies.
Can I get the vaccine if I am immunocompromised? Pernell said the CDC’s only contraindications (or people they identified that should not get the vaccine) are those who are allergic to components of the vaccine or who have had an allergic reaction after being vaccinated.
According to Bey, it’s particularly important that those who have a condition affecting their immunity to get vaccinated.
“You have a bullseye on your chest if you have something like a comorbidity that’s going to decrease your immunity,” he said.
The panelists encouraged anyone who is still uncertain about their particular condition to ask their doctor.
Is it worth getting vaccinated if I already had COVID? Pernell, who often hears this question from health workers, said those who have had the coronavirus should still get vaccinated.
“What the data is showing us is that the immunity conferred from vaccination is stronger than with natural immunity, meaning you’ve been infected.”
What is Union County doing to expand access? County Commissioner Angela Garretson said the county’s mobile unit offers a walk-up COVID testing service, which leveled the playing field in two ways.
“First, it opened up access to test people who could otherwise have trouble getting to the test center. Second, our walk-up center also required no online appointments, so it made it easier for everyone without internet access,” Garretson said.
Granados said the county opened a satellite vaccine facility in Plainfield to better serve communities of color on the county’s western end. The county also reaches underserved communities by supporting vaccination centers in Elizabeth and Rahway, the commissioner said.
The county’s public safety director, Andrew Moran, said the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine was a “game changer,” allowing officials to go deep into communities and vaccinate people on distribution lists.
“We're not going to stop until every single person who wants to get vaccinated has the opportunity to do so,” said Granados.