DR. MELISSA CLARKE
The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for more than a year now. While we’re making progress in our quest for a return to normalcy, we still need answers beyond the standard advice to socially distance, wear a mask and wash those hands. Should we get the new COVID vaccine, or nah? How risky is it out there for mommies and babies? Whose information can we trust? What more should we do to take care of ourselves?
To get a better understanding of COVID’s impact on us and what we can do about it, Black Women Unmuted sat down with Dr. Melissa Clarke, Harvard-educated physician and author of the patient empowerment guide “Excuse Me Doctor! I’ve Got What?” Check out what she had to say!
● What is the biggest misconception you’ve seen regarding COVID-19 and Black women?
There are so many misconceptions but since I have to choose one, it is the social media disinformation about COVID vaccinations and fertility. We have seen no evidence of this. In fact, 23 women became pregnant during the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine trials. The ingredients in the vaccines – fats, sugars, and salts listed on the FDA website — do not affect fertility. And the genetic material in these vaccines, which give your body instructions on making a small piece of the coronavirus, gets destroyed within minutes of entering your cells. So, it has no chance to harm your ability to get pregnant. On top of that, our bodies are very accustomed to seeing viral genetic material. Every time we get a cold, flu or stomach virus, we get exposed to it and it is not known to affect fertility.
“As health care professionals, pastors and other community leaders have proceeded to “go first” in getting vaccinated, more of us now see there is nothing to be concerned about and those vaccine hesitancy numbers among Black people are improving significantly.”Dr. Melissa Clarke
● Let’s talk about reluctance among Black people to get the COVID vaccine. Are we really as wary of the vaccine as media reports us to be? Also, it’s been said loudly for months now that the Tuskegee syphilis experiment is the main reason many of us don’t want to get the vaccine. Do you think that’s true? If not, what is really behind any reluctance we might have?
I break our justifiable suspicion down into three categories: 1) Knowledge of historical medical abuses like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment — which notably did not infect Black men syphilis but withheld treatment from them, which is equally as terrible. 2) Current life experiences that we as African Americans have where we are devalued by systems set up for education, banking, criminal justice and so forth. The health care system is no different. It is well documented in medical literature that Black people do not get referred at the same rate as whites for certain life-saving treatments. Black women die in childbirth at three times the rate of white women, but when treated by Black doctors, a 2020 study showed that Black newborns are less likely to die than those delivered by white doctors. Experience with disparities in this sometimes unwelcoming medical system violates trust and leaves us suspicious of medical treatments. 3) Falsehoods on social media that have been targeting Black people worldwide with anti-vaccination messages since 2016. Those same tropes have been remixed as anti-COVID vaccine messages and paraded out again. The previous presidential administration only made matters worse by downplaying the pandemic and promoting mistrust in federal agencies like the CDC and FDA. In general, disinformation in a pandemic takes root among communities that feel powerless over their fate and have high levels of mistrust. The half-truths resonate in some way, and the explanations help people feel they can recapture some measure of control.
Black people have not survived as long as we have in this country by being unable to see through lies. According to polls by both the Pew Research Center and the Black Coalition Against COVID 19, vaccine refusal rate among African Americans was near 70 percent in the fall of 2020. However, in the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, only 20 percent of Black people said they would never take the vaccine. That’s the same percentage as the general population. About 43 percent of Black people say they just want more information about the vaccine. Many of us lack access to reliable information and do not have a relationship with a doctor who we trust, so we have to turn to other sources to keep ourselves informed. As health care professionals, pastors and other community leaders have proceeded to “go first” in getting vaccinated, more of us now see there is nothing to be concerned about and those vaccine hesitancy numbers among Black people are improving significantly.
● What is the main thing about COVID-19 that we as Black women should be concerned about?
We should know that we are disproportionately affected by the disease of obesity, and having this disease is a major risk factor for COVID-related hospitalization and death. In addition, pregnancy is also a risk factor for COVID. Per research from University of Pennsylvania, Black pregnant women are more likely than other women to be exposed to the coronavirus, and CDC data show Black pregnant women disproportionately get hospitalized due to COVID compared to white pregnant women. For Black women, there are several life factors that make us more vulnerable to COVID while pregnant, and also put us at higher risk for underlying conditions such as obesity and diabetes. These factors vary from additional stressors in life due to systemic racism, to gender inequity, to living in neighborhoods with fewer healthy food options. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is the need to prioritize our health as much as possible. And of course, we have to continue to be vigilant and not let our guard down in preventing COVID from coming into our households.
● We are now seeing the emergence of “long haulers,” people who recovered from COVID-19 but are still battling its after effects many months later. Are Black people, already a disproportionate number of those who have died of COVID, disproportionately represented among long haulers as well? How can someone tell if they’re a long hauler?
Long Haulers are those people who recover from the immediate effects of the coronavirus infection that generally last 10-14 days, but then continue to have symptoms for weeks to months after the initial infection. Symptoms range from persistent cough, to brain fog, shortness of breath, fatigue, forgetfulness and even numbness and tingling in the body. Over 200 symptoms have been described. If you have persistent symptoms after COVID, or new symptoms that are hard to diagnose, even if you had a mild coronavirus infection and never got tested, talk with your doctor about getting a COVID antibody test and being evaluated for possible COVID long haul syndrome. Unfortunately there are no statistics on long-haulers by ethnicity and race.
● How can Black women best get involved in the fight to eradicate COVID-19?
Get vaccinated and encourage those around you to do the same. If you are still unsure, you can go to the BlackCoalitionAgainstCOVID.org for more information, or tune into my weekly FB/ You Tube Live show every Monday at 9 PM. I take audience questions and would be happy to answer yours.
- What self-care practices would you recommend for those of us who have recovered/are recovering from COVID, and for those who’ve never had COVID but may need help coping with the ongoing pandemic?
Self-care is mental, spiritual and physical. I talk about all three in my book “Excuse Me Dr? I’ve Got What!” Spiritually, do things that feed your soul – walk in nature, pray, meditate, read a book, take an online yoga class, dance, deep breathe, play or listen to music. It may mean waking up 15 minutes earlier to make sure you can get to it every day. On the mental side, unplug from those information sources and people that drain you. Limit your exposure to news and social media, get enough sleep every night, and surround yourself with positive influences. If you feel anxious or depressed, reach out to a friend, pastor, counselor or doctor. And physically, move for at least 30 minutes a day. Wear your mask and distance appropriately and get your yearly checkup! It is safe to go to your doctor following mask and physical distancing protocols. While there, ask to get your vitamin D level checked and if needed, get a referral to a nutritionist to get affordable strategies for healthy eating. While you’re at it, get help scheduling a COVID vaccination. Nothing lasts forever and we will get through this pandemic. We simply have to continue to take it one day at a time.
Dr. Melissa Clarke is a co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Coalition Against COVID, and medical contributor on the nationally syndicated Russ Parr Morning Show on Radio One. Catch her weekly chat, “Excuse Me Doctor?! with Dr. Melissa Clarke,” on Facebook Live and You Tube Live Mondays at 9 PM Eastern.