‘Conversations we need to be having’: Panel discusses vaccine and the Black community

MADISON, Wis. – Just as COVID-19 spreads, so can words.

“I love to talk,” UW Health’s Dr. Jasmine Zapata. “This is so important. These are conversations we need to be having, especially as it relates to the vaccine.”

Zapata joined three other doctors and health experts at an Overture forum panel Monday night focused on the COVID-19 vaccine and the Black community. They answered vaccine questions and dispelled myths, such as the idea that the vaccine can give you COVID-19.

“We want everyone to get the vaccine,” she said Monday ahead of the forum’s airing. “We don’t want to rush people or make them feel judged for not making a decision yet. Our approach is to continue to have conversations.”

Zapata spoke about the pandemic’s personal impact, as well, when she and family members tested positive for COVID-19.

“In addition to the physical, the mental and emotional part was difficult. Not knowing if I will survive. If my husband will, my mom,” she said. “I’m feeling good now, and I’m just doing everything I can to spread the word about how important it is for us to work together to combat this.”

Black people have had higher rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths than white people during the pandemic. In Wisconsin, they were two times more likely to be hospitalized than white residents.

Communities of color still lag behind in vaccination. Experts point to a variety of reasons, including lack of access and a potential distrust in health care settings.

“There has been a history of distrust with the United States public health system and even health care systems due to experimentation that was unethical, even current disparities and inequities we see in public health and health care systems now,” Zapata said.

“There just seems to be more paranoia than I would say is mistrust,” fellow panel speaker Aaron Perry said during the forum.

He started the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, bringing health care to men of color in Madison’s largest black barbershop. He’s hoping to set up a vaccine clinic for men there.

“It is not that they are unwilling to take the vaccine. They’re just paranoid about the information out there,” Perry said, noting misinformation floating around online. “The solution we provided, just providing more clear information, more scientific information, and that seemed to be what the men were in the need of.”

During the panel, Zapata talked about the importance of being frank.

“Yes, the vaccine is safe, but let’s be real and honest,” she said. “There is a very, very rare chance you can have a more severe reaction to it.”

But she compared the rate of anaphylaxis after vaccination – about three to five people out of one million with no deaths directly linked that she knows of – to the about one in 700 Black Americans who have died from COVID-19.

“Even that small, small chance (of a severe reaction) does not outweigh the risks of not getting the vaccine and getting COVID,” Zapata said.

Panelists also spoke about how the vaccines work and the differences between the three approved for use.

“They go about things differently to get to the same endpoint,” UW Health’s Dr. William Hartman said. “These vaccines, no matter which you get, are very, very effective in preventing severe illness from COVID-19 and dying from COVID-19.”

Perry also talked about starting to think about the problems that follow cataclysmic events, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re going to be seeing them for years to come,” Zapata agreed.

She stressed the pandemic isn’t over yet and neither is the panel’s overarching discussion.

“Even though there is hope on the horizon, we still need to be very vigilant,” Zapata said. “There’s still people dying from COVID-19, (people) getting ill. We still need conversations.”

The panel was a part of a series of virtual forums put on by the Overture Center for the Arts.