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American Heart Association forum encourages COVID-19 vaccinations

The American Heart Heart Association

The American Heart Heart Association “Taking the Issues to Heart” virtual forum on Thursday, March 25, encouraged people to get their COVID-19 vaccines and discussed ways to communicate that message in communities of color, where vaccine mistrust and lack of access to health care are issues.

Tracy Maness / Staff photo

The American Heart Association hosted a virtual forum focused on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. It discussed ways to communicate factual information with Houston-area communities of color.

The “Taking the Issues to Heart” event on Thursday, March 25, welcomed a panel of local experts.

“It’s been published in almost every news outlet that the COVID-19 vaccine is the key to reopening the economy,” said Lharissa Jacobs, AHA vice president of health strategies. “Strengthening public trust of the vaccine is critical toward increasing equitable vaccination coverage.”

Jacobs said health and well-being is at the forefront of the American Heart Association’s work and that individuals risk their health by not getting vaccinated. She said vaccines have historically proven the safest, most effective way to tackle infectious diseases.

“Everyone needs to be vaccinated because even one infection can cause an outbreak, and everyone deserves to be protected,” Jacobs said, adding that the shots are particularly important for those who are elderly or who have risk factors like cardiovascular issues or obesity.

She said Black, Hispanic and Native American people and those in rural regions are being hit harder by the pandemic because they are more likely to have underlying health conditions. Also, they tend to lack access to health care and work in more essential jobs, where it is more challenging to socially distance from others.

Gwen Sims, deputy director and interim executive director for Harris County Public Health, explained that many people in the Black community do not trust vaccines because of past wrongs like the Tuskegee experiment. Black men were subjected to a syphilis study from 1932 to 1972 but were denied treatment when it became available. Sims also brought up a historic perception that Black people carried a higher pain tolerance. This led certain providers to perform procedures on them without anesthesia or pain medicines.

Today, lack of access to health care and socioeconomic factors like education, housing, food and unemployment contribute to the mistrust around vaccines, Sims said. She emphasized that the mistrust and the reasons behind it must be recognized to find support for vaccines in Black communities.

While the pandemic is not Harris County Public Health’s first public health emergency response, it has been the longest lasting. HCPH started its resilience and equity branch. It has guided decisions, including case investigations, contact tracing, testing and vaccinations.

Sims said wearing masks, washing hands and socially distancing are still important but urged Texans 16 years and older to sign up to get a vaccine wherever they can find one.

The largest concern with the vaccines that Dr. Shital Patel, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, hears from her patients is safety. How safe are the vaccines, and how can they be developed so quickly but be safe?

“So what people have to understand — and we have to send the right messages, is that those rigorous clinical trials were done with all of the safety measures that we do in any trial before something gets approved in the U.S. population or globally,” Patel said.

She said developing the COVID-19 vaccines has had a lot of funding and support and that the health community already knew a lot about SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, because there was a related SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in the early 2000s. She added that processes that would typically happen in sequence occurred alongside each other, due to the push to get the vaccines ready.

According to Patel, about 20 to 30 percent of people vaccinated experience mild symptoms like fever, body aches or fatigue for one to two days. But they are very similar to what patients might experience after the flu or shingles vaccines, with no long-term side effects, she said.

Patel said providers should focus on discussing vaccine concerns with their patients. Conversely, she encouraged individuals to talk about their apprehensions with a health care provider or friends or family members that have already received a vaccine.

Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has worked with the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs to study the economic effects of the pandemic in Houston. She said Hispanics account for roughly $42 billion of the Houston economy and have a young population. Murillo said many work in front-line jobs and live in multi-generational homes, contributing to more COVID-19 cases and higher hospitalization and death rates.

People of color, Murillo explained, have been more deeply affected by unemployment than their white counterparts during the pandemic. She said the chamber views the vaccine as critical to reopening economies. She wants employers to encourage their workers to register, give them time off to get the shots and provide pay incentives when possible.

Daisy Morales, vice president of Community Health Choice, works with largely underserved Hispanic populations. She said fewer people there are getting vaccinated because they work in hourly jobs and do not have the opportunity to wait long periods at a computer to track down an appointment or spend hours in line at a vaccination site. Transportation and childcare have also been hurdles, she said.

Morales explained that not enough vaccination educational materials were translated into other languages early in the pandemic, so health organizations are working to catch up. Without the reliable communications, she said misinformation has spread.

Murillo urged Texans to get vaccinated and to tell people in their communities to do the same.

“Let’s do everything we can, starting with your family and your neighbors,” Murillo said.

COVID-19 information is available at Harris County residents can register for a vaccine at or by calling 832-927-8787.

As published by the Houston Chronicle