Vaccines remain the safest path against COVID-19, especially for POC
Let me be clear, I am not a COVID-19 expert. I am a researcher, a hospital administrator and a Person of Color (POC). I don’t consider myself a typical essential worker. I am vaccinated and I’ve caught COVID-19 and experienced the internal mental pervasive fear associated with not knowing what physiological outcomes I would encounter next.
So why am I telling you this and why is it important for you to know my story? My story is that story shared silently by many POC who are either vaccinated or unvaccinated. That fear of if you are going to survive your first bout with COVID-19 after vaccination or that fear of if you made the right decision not to be vaccinated.
In early 2020, COVID-19 brought disparities in health outcomes for POC to the forefront. Racial and gender identity now became tied to prevalent healthcare disparities. We were also first introduced to the term “Essential Worker.” People who worked in healthcare, sanitation, supermarkets and the post office risked their lives to keep the rest of us going.
Many of these essential workers not employed in the health sector generally include racially diverse, low-wage workers, immigrants and migrant workers whose jobs usually require close interaction with the public or their coworkers, placing them at greater risk for exposure to COVID-19.
In 2020, COVID-19 became categorized as a disease of the essential worker. This was true for all communities including Santa Barbara. Many of the initial deaths within our community were essential workers. Although I describe myself as an essential worker I consider myself to be more of a protected healthcare essential worker because my team and I worked in a regimented fashion to ensure the least amount of contact within the office and hospital. My team worked in a hybrid remote fashion during the lockdown to facilitate the continuation of COVID-19 research discoveries in collaboration with the amazing clinical staff at Cottage Hospital.
Within my team, we worked in shifts that allowed us to perform our duties with minimal office interactions. This was unlike typical essential workers who worked in close proximity to others and the public. Our small office allowed us to institute single-directional movement, one way in and one way out. We instituted limited attendance protocols within the office allowing one person per approximately 1000 feet and closed all areas where staff could congregate.
We instituted mandatory N95 mask use for those in the hospital and when we experienced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), like most hospital systems, our wonderful Santa Barbara community stepped up to donate their own PPE supplies to protect essential medical staff. This unselfish act of grace from our community saved countless lives. But with the introduction of vaccines in 2021 and the mask mandate being dropped in 2022, everything changed.
Despite overwhelming evidence in 2021 of vaccine benefits for the prevention of severe disease and health outcomes, vaccine hesitancy became more prevalent in POC. Structural racism became evident as the contributing factor associated with inequality in the face of COVID-19 rates for morbidity and mortality for POC. Inexplicably many policies that were initially designed decades ago to benefit the many have caused the detriment of others, resulting in some races and marginalized communities having unequal access to care and education. This may be due in part to access to social determinants such as health literacy, insurance status, mobility, and social marginalization. Moreover, this distrust and hesitancy of science and vaccinations are rooted in a history of mistrust resulting from immoral research in African American, Latino, and Asian American populations.
In 2022 I put my guard down and caught COVID-19 at an external medical meeting. Like many, I felt that by being vaccinated I would have a lesser chance of catching COVID-19. I was wrong. Upon my return home, I felt like I was run over by a truck. For 13 days I experienced never-ending chills, ongoing headaches, loss of taste and smell, incredible night sweats and the never-ending psychological fear that if I went to sleep I would stop breathing. For me, the worst was the lack of sleep due to the psychological fear because for two years I had been hearing and reading that POC has the highest incidence of intubation, renal injury, cardiac arrest and death. Not to mention, my family history during COVID-19 was not good.
Early during the pandemic, I lost my uncle to COVID-19. We didn’t know he was diagnosed with COVID-19 because his family was ashamed to share this info with the rest of the family because of the stigma associated with the disease within the Caribbean community. Moreover, when he died, he died alone and the family was not made aware of his death for two weeks post-mortem. His body also wasn’t recovered for three months post-mortem because his body was lost in a freezer truck with hundreds of bodies piled up in New York City. My uncle was an essential worker at the post office and was not vaccinated.
Three months prior to my catching COVID-19 my father caught it as well and was hospitalized for almost a month with severe COVID-19 complications. My father was vaccinated and did not pass away but his body was so damaged by COVID-19 that he is now on hemodialysis for the rest of his life and is recovering from other severe post-complications.
The case of my uncle, father and myself is the reason I wrote this Op-Ed. I believe that if vaccines were available in 2020 my uncle may still be alive. I also believe that my father survived albeit with complications but because he was vaccinated. I believe my outcome was better because I was vaccinated. In the case of my father and me, the vaccine was not the enemy but may have been our savior. My wish is that more POC understand the importance of being vaccinated and taking the vaccine. It’s the safest path.
Dr. Richard Beswick is the Vice President & Chief Research Officer at Sansum Clinic.
The Pacific Coast Business Times will be running our annual State of Black Leadership focus section on Feb. 17.