The Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color
As unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 cases are being reported throughout the U.S., minority communities, which tend to be communities of color, continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus – particularly Black and brown populations. CommonSpirit Health’s Marijka Grey, MD, System Director, Transformation Implementation, Physician Enterprise, recently answered important questions about concerns over the COVID-19 vaccines and their potential impact to minority communities.
Why are minority communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19?
Initial research indicates that socioeconomic factors are the primary contributor for the increased rate in minority communities. These communities traditionally have more multi-generational family arrangements, resulting in a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission if a member of the household falls ill. Also, Black, brown and minority communities disproportionately hold positions that are considered essential or public-facing, which automatically increases the risk for contracting COVID-19. Challenging or irregular access to care and health comorbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity also impact increased risk.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. What are mRNA vaccines and how do they react with diseases like lupus and sickle cell anemia, which are common in minority communities?
All vaccines work by copying how the virus looks in the body so that your body is able to create a focused immune response when exposed to the disease it is trying to prevent (in this case, COVID-19). In the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, pieces of encoded mRNA are packaged in tiny lipid (or fat) particles. This is injected into the body and taken up into nearby cells. The mRNA then instructs the nearby cell factories called ribosomes to produce a Spike Protein that looks just like the COVID-19 virus’ Spike Protein. Notably, the vaccine never alters your DNA. Your body then creates antibodies (or immune soldiers) to attach to the Spike Protein, inactivating it. If you are later exposed to COVID-19, your immune soldiers already know what the COVID-19 virus looks like and are able to quickly recognize it and inactivate it.
The technology behind this vaccine has been in development for several decades, but these are the first mRNA vaccines approved for widespread use. The rapid spread of COVID-19 and the vaccine to fight it has meant that the scientific community hasn’t had enough time to specifically test in certain communities such as patients with lupus or sickle cell anemia, but we know that for patients with immune issues and/or high-risk chronic disease, there is a higher risk of death if they contract COVID-19. If you have a chronic disease or are on any medications that suppress your immune system, talk to your primary care doctor about whether you are a good candidate for the vaccine.
There are many concerns about the availability of the vaccine, particularly with Black and brown communities of color who may have irregular access to care. What is being done to ensure that people are getting the vaccine?
Vaccine availability is a nationwide concern, regardless of race. The U.S. government has arranged to purchase enough vaccine to give the entire population; the challenge is distribution of the vaccine to reach all populations. Health care workers and adults older than 65 have been prioritized because of their high risk for exposure and related complications, but this does not fully address Black, brown and minority populations who are also in high-risk categories. Delivery of vaccines is determined by individual states and local health departments. If you are unsure about how the vaccine is planned to be distributed in your area, check your local health department or hospital website.**
You’ve been pretty public about having been vaccinated for COVID-19. As a person of color, why did you get vaccinated?
I always believe that health care decisions are personal and anyone who is in doubt should discuss the risks and benefits of vaccination with their health care provider. As a physician, I’m confident in the science behind the vaccine. As a woman of color and a health care provider, I’ve seen the devastation that this disease has brought to my community and anything I can do to hasten COVID-19 becoming a thing of the past, including vaccination, I think is personally worth it.
**More information about the COVID-19 vaccine and minority communities will be available in future Insights editions. Please remember that all CommonSpirit employees are currently being offered the opportunity to vaccinate. If you have questions about where you can access a COVID-19 vaccine through CommonSpirit, please email Covid19VaccineQuestions@commonspirit.org.