A virtual town hall at Bowie State University went in-depth on COVID-19, including vaccine hesitancy and other topics regarding the disease’s impact on the Black community.
The town hall featured some of the nation’s leading Black clinicians, including Dr. Chris Pernell, with University Hospital in New Jersey; Dr. Theopia Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and the president of the Association of Black Psychologists, and Dr. Jacqueline J. Hill, the head of Bowie State’s Nursing Program.
The topic was COVID-19 as it affects mental health and wellness, and coping with the pandemic in the African American community.
Pernell took on potential vaccine hesitancy among African Americans — some of whom say the speed at which the vaccines were developed concerns them. But Pernell explained that the super-fast development of a vaccine was possible because the virus had already been mapped out in a lab, creating a blueprint for the vaccine.
The fastest a vaccine had been developed before COVID-19 was the mumps vaccine, which took four years to develop, Pernell said.
“What enabled this vaccine to be developed quicker is the nature of the science itself,” she said.
“Both Pfizer and Moderna [vaccines] are mRNA or messenger RNA vaccines,” Pernell said. “These vaccines were able to be designed in a laboratory, so it’s a genetic recipe … because we were able to sequence coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2, the actual virus, we know its genetic makeup.”
From that sequence, scientists were able to design a spike protein that was similar enough to the one found in the coronavirus, according to Pernell. This meant they were able to skip the usual process of growing the virus in a lab, usually inside a chicken egg, which cut down development time significantly.
The other factor that increased the speed of development was the huge investment of federal funding that was put into the hunt for a vaccine.
“That federal funding allowed this process to reach very large-scale trials — you see the amount of people who participated in the Johnson & Johnson, the Moderna and the Pfizer — we’re talking about anywhere from 30-to-40,000 persons who participated,” she said, adding that she had participated in the Moderna trials.
She said it was important for people of color to get vaccinated because the virus has had a disproportionate impact on their communities.
Pernell said she had seen that impact firsthand — her father died of COVID-19. The loss drove her to participate in the Moderna trial, as she wanted to do something that would help in the fight against the virus and honor his memory.
Hill said PTSD and burnout are becoming major concerns among nurses, as they have been surrounded by more loss and illness than ever before.
Jackson explained that, from a mental health standpoint, even the extreme feelings that some have experienced amid the pandemic are not unusual. She said when we look at the increase in depression, anxiety, even suicidal thoughts — these are all normal reactions to an abnormal situation that everyone is dealing with right now, including medical providers.
Jackson said recognizing that the trauma is real is the first step in moving forward.
“No one is immune from it; we can no longer go with that individualistic perspective of, you know, ‘The strong survive’ and ‘I have to keep pushing through,’ and ‘I can’t share that I’m hurting, scared worried and afraid’ — no. We have to stop and really honor that and say that’s what’s going on,” she said.
She said it was important for people to spread messages of health and healing among their communities, but it was equally important to listen to others and try to understand where they may be coming from.
“That may mean listening intently to one another — not trying to fix, or solve, or judge, or talk somebody out of their feelings, but how do we genuinely affect them and clearly listen to what they have to say, validate where they are and then leave room for them to move forward,” Jackson said.
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