African American medical professionals promote vaccines, wellness to combat COVID-19 pandemic

Local Black medical professionals addressed vaccine roll-out in the Evanston-area Black community and encouraged the general public to get vaccinated, including pregnant women. They offered their advice as part of a webinar hosted by Second Baptist Church in Evanston in partnership with AMITA Health St. Francis Hospital. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Leonna McAfee
Medill Reports

Medical professionals in Evanston encourages the Black community and the general public to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated for COVID-19 as a key step in putting the pandemic behind us. 

Doctors and other medical professionals partnered with the Second Baptist Church and AMITA Health St. Francis Hospital in Evanston to emphasize the safety and importance of the vaccine in a webinar on Monday.

The webinar, “Bridging the Gaps: Black Health and the COVID-19 vaccine,” featured five local Black medical professionals who stressed the importance of the Black community getting immunized, especially when people of color are contracting and dying of the virus at a much higher rate than white people. They said COVID-19’s increased threat on Black maternal health among expectant mothers makes it crucial for women to live healthier lifestyles during the pandemic, with healthy diets and exercise.

Dr. Barrett Robinson, a NorthShore maternal fetal medicine physician treating high risk pregnancies, acknowledged that while pregnant women were excluded from vaccine trials, he encourages them to receive the vaccine, especially if they work in high-risk situations.

“There’s nothing about the technology that has raised any concerns in terms of giving it to a pregnant patient,” Robinson said.

Kenneth Jones, president of AMITA St. Francis Hospital, and the Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors, Second Baptist Church senior pastor, moderated the conversation about the continuing serious spread of COVID-19 and the critical role of the vaccine in preventing it, he said. 

Dr. Richard Phillips, regional medical director of Illinois Emergency Medicine Specialists and medical director for AMITA Health’s emergency department, said what makes COVID-19 so threatening is how sick it can make people. He has seen from the front lines how Black and brown communities are disproportionately harmed by the disease.

He recalled his first COVID-19 patient — a 20-year-old Black man — who was in the hospital for five weeks even though he had been relatively healthy prior to his diagnosis.

“If all 100 people on this webinar were to get COVID-19, about 20 [would] require hospitalization, which is significant,” Phillips said.

While the effects of COVID-19 differ from patient to patient, he told webinar viewers it is “not just like the flu” and can produce substantial health consequences.

The mortality rate of the coronavirus is far higher for Black people compared with white people, according to Phillips.

NorthShore University HealthSystem pharmacy resident Nathaniel Johnson assured webinar participants about vaccine safety and effectiveness demonstrated in the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials.

Johnson said the vaccine trials included over 40,000 individuals, 10% of whom were Black. The Moderna vaccine has an efficacy rate of 94.1%, and the Pfizer vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95%.

Common adverse reactions observed in the trials include headache, fatigue, and injection site pain, Johnson said. 

One participant in the Q & A asked if individuals with cancer were among those tested in the trials. Johnson said that data was not available because people with cancer were not included in the Pfizer or Moderna trials. 

Phillips answered that evidence of the impact COVID-19 has on cancer patients is still limited. 

“Getting COVID-19 while being immuno-compromised and undergoing treatment for cancer can be devastating,” Phillips said. “But I don’t believe cancer is a disqualifying factor in getting the vaccine.” Just check with your oncologist, he advised.

“If you’re offered [the vaccine] and your doctor says you should get it, you should go ahead and get vaccinated.” 

Robinson answered a Medill Reports question about the higher maternal mortality rate among Black women than among women of other communities, saying there are three factors that contribute to this.

“One factor is that Black women tend to have higher rates of things like obesity, diabetes, hypertension,” Robinson said. “Access is also an issue and that deals with the social determinants of health.

“If you live in an area where you are not able to see a physician or if your insurance is not viewed as favorable, you may not find you’re pregnant until midway into your second trimester,” Robinson said.

“Social determinants related to access such as food, housing, and transportation insecurity need to be addressed within the African American community and it’s part of a much bigger problem that a physician cannot easily write a prescription for.”

Panelists said it is also important to note the deeply rooted and continuous implicit racism in medicine, emphasizing the impact it has on mental health.

“Being born Black creates a stress that is uncommon and not natural among other people,” Nabors said.

AMITA Health gynecologist Riley Lloyd spoke on promoting the general wellness of the Black community and the importance of building community.

“What helps our community is when we’re better neighbors,” Lloyd said. “We tend to run away from (mental health). We’re going to have to reach out more and face those demons and bring people in.”

Lloyd recommended prioritizing wellness with getting a good night’s rest with seven hours of sleep a night and taking vitamin D supplements, which helps in cellular strength and immunity throughout the body.

Lloyd ended the session on a positive note.

“We’ve been practicing things to be healthy for a year and the goal is to keep practicing them,” Lloyd said. “We do have hope, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Leonna McAfee is an environment, health, and social justice reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @leemcafe.