By Nicole Woolcock
A common refrain resounds throughout the Black community when national hardship strikes the United States: ‘When White folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia.’ That is to say, systemic racial inequities cause economic and public health issues to disproportionately impact the Black community. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
On September 22, 2021, the San Diego Association of Black Journalists (SDABJ) —a nonprofit committed to raising funds for journalism scholarships, diversifying the newsroom, and elevating black journalists to management positions—hosted a virtual panel on “Myth Busting COVID: Fact or Fiction.” The decorated panel included five distinguished Black doctors from San Diego, California, who explained the virus’ acute impact on the Black community and how individuals can counteract misinformation to end the pandemic.
Earlier that same month, the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors and the State Assembly declared misinformation as a public health crisis.
“Here in California, we value correct information…and we understand the devastating impact misinformation has had—not only with COVID but in general,” said panelist District 79 Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber, the founder and director of the Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology Division at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, head of the adolescent gynecology program at UC San Diego Health, and an assistant clinical professor at UCSD.
Education about infection prevention, such as social distancing, proper handwashing and wearing masks is helpful. But vaccination is still the best way to decrease one’s risk of becoming infected, requiring hospitalization, contracting long-term residual symptoms and death. Unfortunately, misinformation proliferates on social media. Carefully conducted research and sound medical counsel is challenged by the latest myths or conspiracies.
Dr. Suzanne Afflalo, family physician and director of Alliance Health Clinic who also spoke at the panel, credited these myths with the entrenched beliefs that make vaccine education more difficult. Solemnly, she stated, “it’s life or death at this point…25% of the [vaccine eligible population] are holding the rest of us hostage from getting past this pandemic.”
At the time of the panel discussion, the number of new COVID-19 cases in San Diego hovered around 600-800 cases per day, which is down from the summer spike when San Diego counted more than 1,200 cases in a single Thursday. Although the decrease is promising, San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten, would like to see the case numbers come down further. “Right now, all of the oxygen is being sucked out of the room by the Delta variant,” said Wooten, “People of color are on the frontlines. They’re the janitors, the workers at restaurants, [which] places them at greater risk for being exposed.”
Not only does occupation increase the Black population’s vulnerability, but comorbidities, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, increase the risk for complications with COVID-19. Nationally, Black Americans experience the highest rates for both diabetes (13% of adults) and high blood pressure (54% of adults). Concerningly, the Black community’s vaccination rate trails behind other groups as only 10% of the United States adult vaccinated population identifies as Black.
COVID-19 infection rates for unvaccinated San Diego residents—regardless of ethnicity and racial group—are four times higher than those for vaccinated residents; hospitalizations are thirty-four times higher among the unvaccinated. It is imperative to get vaccinated.
So, how do the vaccinated engage vaccine-wary family and friends?
“The real key is patience and love,” said panelist Dr. Rodney G. Hood, practicing physician and president & chairman of the Multicultural Health Foundation. Dr. Hood recommends avoiding condescension, pushiness and blaming. That approach often intensifies the other person’s resistance and stalls future opportunities to share accurate information. “Sometimes, [I talk] with a patient for the third or fourth time before they’ll say, ‘Alright, Doc, I’m ready to get it,’” Hood shared.
Attentive listening and plainly communicating one’s care for a loved one can help identify “that deep thing that’s holding them back,” added Afflalo.
Unlike the scientific method behind the vaccine’s creation, there is no standard formula or speech that is guaranteed to resolve hesitancy for everyone. Panelist and SHARP Health Care Cardiologist Dr. Robert Gillespie stressed, “Everyone is a separate person…[So,] you have to strike what hits home for that individual.”
Vaccinating all eligible groups is the scientific answer to ending the pandemic. Socially, a mindset of “thinking as a community instead of as individuals [would help protect] the most vulnerable, our future,” Weber petitioned.
To fight—and win—against the life-threatening coronavirus pandemic, the panel agreed that all communities need easy access to scientific facts and loving, patient outreach from trustworthy leaders.
On an individual level, how should people challenge COVID misinformation?
“I consider it hand-to-hand combat—out of love,” said Hood.
To learn more from this engaging expert panel on how to combat misinformation, available treatments for COVID-19 infection, and San Diego-specific public health data, check out a recording of the full SDABJ event here.