BELLEVILLE, NJ - Michael J. Straker, M.D., chairperson of the OB/GYN department at Clara Maass Medical Center, practicing in Nutley for 17 years, talks about the obstacles the Black community faces obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine and their inoculation hesitation.

Though some people are hesitant, Straker finds few people who are not open to vaccination. “I have quite a few patients who have [been vaccinated] are excited to get vaccinated and some folks who are on the fence. I have very few patients who are just completely and totally against it,” he said.

According to Straker, some folks are hesitant and rather wait longer due to concerns including the speed the vaccine was developed, the safety and long-term effects.

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Straker reassures people that although the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were created using the newer mRNA-platform, the developmental process has been studied for at least 30 years and they are safe. He said the mRNA vaccines are used for the Zika virus and the flu. “Don’t be afraid at the speed in which the vaccine has been developed because it’s not really new, it’s new to this particular virus,” he said.

The first person vaccinated was more than a year ago during the phase III trials of Moderna, said Straker. Margaret Keenan, 91, was vaccinated in the United Kingdom a week before Sandra Lindsay, an American Black woman, received the emergency approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020. Lindsay is a nurse and director of patient services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center's intensive care unit.

Straker pointed out that since December, New Jersey fully vaccinated 2.5 million people, 28 percent of the population, and 6 million people received the first dose of either Pfizer or Moderna. Straker asks his patients the question, “How many people have had a significant bad reaction or complication from the vaccine.” and their usual response is none. “We don’t have all the answers in terms of the long term ramifications. We know [since] December we haven’t had many people if any who have been significantly impacted with adverse side effects from the vaccine,” he said.

Straker said a common misconception is that the vaccine is experimental, which is not true. The vaccine went through trials and completed the experimental phase. “Being an African American man and something that is developed at warp speed, we’re not 100 percent sure what it is, there is that hesitancy in some people, where we have been in situations where we don’t want to be experimented on, this is experimental. The emergency use authorization is not experimental medication, its devices or treatments that have been given the green light after have been proven to be safe and effective with the information that we have currently,” he said.

All three vaccines are 100 percent effective in preventing death. “We may not know what the vaccine will do over time but we definitely know that more than 560,000 people died from COVID, so we can prevent it,” he said.

Another misconception is that the vaccine will cause infertility and it is unsafe for pregnant women. Studies show these theories are untrue and that it will not harm the fetus and may be beneficial to babies through breastmilk.  “I am definitely recommending that pregnant women get the vaccine, but through the abundance of caution, to wait until the third trimester, so if there is anything adversely that is going to happen to the pregnancy regardless we are not going to attribute that to the vaccine,” he said.

Straker said in many ways African Americans specifically have been wronged by the medical community. Two examples he gave were the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died from cervical cancer in the 1950s. “People usually bring up the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment done by the United States public health system, where African American men who had syphilis were willfully not given a treatment that they knew would work. Or Henrietta Lacks, […] whose doctors harvested her cells. These cells were used even today to make medical breakthroughs. […] She never gave consent to have those cells harvested. […} Many companies made billions and billions of dollars using her cells and [the family] never got any type of compensation for that even to this day,” he said.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study denied treatment and lied to African Americans with syphilis for over 40 years. As a result, more were infected and passed congenital syphilis onto their children, and many died.

Straker tells his patients this is not an experiment where a treatment is withheld from someone, but this is a vaccine. He also lets them know that the lead scientist that developed the vaccine for Moderna is Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American woman and a Black man who is FDA Committee that gave the emergency use authorization. “When you have representation in terms of the development and the approval of these vaccines it’s a little bit different than when you have a community that is willfully disenfranchising another community in these medical scenarios,” Straker said.

Moderna received emergency use authorization a few weeks after Pfizer. “They pulled back in terms of that phase III study to increase the number of African Americans who represented insight. When you have peoplewillfully trying to include people of color in studies and development there has to be a different level of comfort in that,” he said.

Straker is also making his patients aware that after getting the COVID-19 virus many people can experience long COVID, known as long-haulers syndrome. These people suffer from brain fog, depression, shortness of breath, cardiac and kidney issues, which have developed after they recover from COVID-19. “The vast majority of those people who have this long hauler syndrome did not have severe disease, they were not hospitalized. So for me the question is, we all want to prevent COVID, you may not have a severe case, but do you want to have these lingering symptoms that we have no idea whether those symptoms will go away, when they will go away, and how they will affect you long term,” he said.

Obtaining the vaccine has become a challenge for many who work 9 to 5 jobs because many clinics are only open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and people have to go twice. “That doesn’t really speak to a person’s hesitancy that may speak to a person’s inability to gain access,” he said.

Another issue with some of these clinics, according to Straker, is that they don’t necessarily serve the community. “This is happening in communities of color. People are coming from outside that community to get the vaccine,” he said.

Straker said some solutions to these restrictions are creating more clinics that are mobile that allow for walk-up appointments or simply just increasing the hours. “We have to make it easier to access the vaccine, we shouldn’t make it harder,” he said.

Straker and his wife, Jamelle have been reaching out to communities, especially Black communities to educate people on the COVID-19 vaccine. Jamelle Straker has also reached out to the school districts in Montclair, East Orange, Orange and Irvington to increase awareness of the vaccine.