Featuring Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, Executive and Medical Director of Metropolitan Human Services District
Let’s Talk About Health is a monthly health segment featuring Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, the Executive and Medical Director of Metropolitan Human Services District. In this month’s interview, Dr. Dunham and New Orleans Tribune Editor, Anitra Brown discussed vaccination stigmas in the Black community. Dr. Dunham shared historical facts and insight on the causes of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community and provided us with information on various health resources offered by the Metropolitan Human Services District. We will share with you a snippet of our conversation with Dr. Dunham.
The Tribune: There are many stigmas associated with the medical establishment and the Black community which has created hesitancy around vaccinations in our community. How has MHSD worked to combat vaccine hesitancy?
Dr. Dunham: There is so much misinformation circulating about the COVID-19 vaccine. One of our main concerns is making sure everyone gets the right information. The information about this particular vaccine is very scientific and very complicated causing the discourse around it to get very distorted. There is a lot of misinformation being shared on social media, reaching a vast number of people, causing a lot of confusion about the vaccine.
At MSHD, we combat the wave of misinformation by sharing the facts and focusing on pertinent information that the public should concern themselves with which is the glaring number of deaths and hospitalizations due to exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Due to pre-existing health conditions, a number are people are cautioned from receiving the vaccination because of the possibility of an allergic reaction. However, this only impacts about 5 percent of the population and most people do not fall in that category.
The underlying issue is that most people do not understand the science behind the vaccination and/or do not trust the sources providing information. In this country, trust is a major issue, especially for those who have not had access to proper medical care and whose medical issues have not been taken very seriously. It certainly would beg the question, “Why should I trust you now?” The medical industry, as a whole, is experiencing difficulty in battling the unfortunate truths of its past. As a result, it is of utmost importance to have people, organizations, and institutions that have earned the trust and respect of the community and to accept the responsibility of disseminating the correct information.
The Tribune: Is it normal to experience any trepidation or have concerns prior to taking the vaccine? Should people feel embarrassed because they have concerns?
Dr. Dunham: The majority of the MHSD staff has been vaccinated. We work in the medical field and still quite a few of my employees experienced some level of trepidation prior to taking the vaccination. It is normal to have concerns prior to taking the vaccination. Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to openly express their concerns about the vaccination. Again, that is why it is so important to have trusted community representatives and resources, armed with the facts, to assist in providing the answers to the questions that help relieve the caution or trepidation with taking a vaccine.
That is the reason that I have taken it on as a personal mission to have MHSD serve as a resource to our community by providing it with the proper medical information. Everyone has the right to do what they want with their bodies. At MSHD, we want to ensure that the decision is made based on sound logic and the right information.
The Tribune: What methods are you using to disseminate the correct information to the community and why did you decide to utilize those methods?
Dr. Dunham: Prior to MHSD’s outreach campaign, I surveyed my staff to find out the type of information they wanted to know about the vaccine, how often they wanted to receive the information and best method of communicating the message. This poll was critical in guiding our communications efforts with the community. As a result, we disseminate content two times per week, specific to COVID-19, that breaks down the science in a very clear manner from trusted sources like the CDC and The Louisiana Department of Health.
Since MHSD’s staff would serve as ‘“information messengers,” it was important for me to arm them with as much information as possible about the vaccination, so I scheduled MHSD’s team of pharmacists to provide my staff with information about the vaccine from a pharmacological perspective. I also invite my staff to participate in expert conversations and to ask questions about the vaccine. In an effort to lead by example, in the first week of January 2021, I received the vaccination and made it possible for MHSD pharmacists to administer the vaccination to our staff members.
The Tribune: There are a lot of myths circulating about the COVID-19 vaccination. The myths about the vaccination range from chips being implanted in those that receive the vaccination to the vaccination causing infertility in women? How is MSHD combatting these myths?
Dr. Dunham: Well, the first thing that we have to do is listen to people to get a better understanding of why they feel the way that they do. These myths usually come from something that they read or something that they were told, and most often, the myth cannot be supported with facts. As it relates to the COVID-19 vaccination, I think the hesitation stems from a lack of trust in the system and trying to discern whether or not the system that has deceived them in the past is attempting to deceive them now. That is why it is so important to have people and entities in the medical field with whom the people have an established trust.
Also, there has to be someone willing to answer the questions being put forth by the community. For example, I have heard so many people voice concerns about how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines were developed and deployed and other vaccines undergo years of trials. In response to that concern, it should be noted that the science used in developing this new treatment employs a completely different vaccination method. In the majority of vaccinations, a small part of the pathogen is used in the vaccine to increase the body’s antibody response to the virus. The COVID-19 vaccination is different in that it uses a mRNA process to induce an antibody response. The medical field has been researching and testing this process for years.
Another common myth is that the vaccination has long-term side effects, such as infertility in women. In clinical trials, there has been no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccination results in infertility in men or women. However, it has been shown that some men have experienced issues with infertility after being infected with the COVID-19 virus.
The Tribune: What are a few trusted information sources that people can turn to if people have any questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccination?
Dr. Dunham: I am going to put MSHD on the line here. If anyone has any questions, I encourage them to contact MHSD. If we do not have the answer, we can find someone who has the answer. I am not saying any one person has all the answers, which is another common misconception, but we work with a large network of medical professionals who can provide you with an answer to your question. The Louisiana Department of Health is another great resource that is directly involved in the vaccination research. Lastly, I would recommend contacting or viewing the CDC’s website for any information about COVID-19 virus or the vaccination.
The Tribune: MHSD has been on the front line of mental health services. MHSD provides vital mental health resources and services to our community. How has the COVID-19 pandemic, as its associated effects, impacted the mental health landscape in New Orleans?
Dr. Dunham: We are living through a very complicated time in history. It is a complex moment in time where many issues are colliding together like racial and social issues, some of which have been unmasked by the pandemic. Especially in the current environment, MHSD’s role is very important as we see people who are underserved and most likely to be infected. The mentally ill are the second most-likely group to contract the COVID-19 virus. By default, we deal with the most mentally and physically ill people in the community. The tenuousness of all these factors working together makes this an anxiety-provoking issue for everybody.
There is also an underlying grief that many are experiencing due to the loss of loved ones from the COVID-19 virus. Everyone has been forced to change the ways in which they behave which causes grief that is carried in the form of anxiety, sadness, anger, isolation or frustration. We are dealing with a lot right now. The toll of our current condition can impact on the most mentally and constitutionally sollid individuals.
The optimist in me wants to find the silver lining in all of this. We should work on being different. We should take this time to evaluate how we have been and to work on being better. We now have an opportunity to do and to be better. This moment will not last forever, nothing does. When this is all over, are we going to be different for the worse or the better? The choice is up to each individual. I hope we are all better.
The Tribune: We are so grateful for MHSD for all of the services that it provides to the community. How can the community contact MHSD if they have questions or concerns, not only about the vaccination, but for issues related to mental health or health in general?
Dr. Dunham: Please contact Metropolitan Human Services District if you have health related issues, questions or concerns at 504-568-3130 or visit our website at mhsdla.org.
The Tribune: We thank MSHD and Dr. Dunham for all of the services they offer to the community and for the information offered in this interview. Tune in for more health talk on the next “Let’s Talk About Health” interview with Dr. Rochelle Dunham airing in March 2021. The interview will air live on Facebook @neworleanstribune and Instagram @theneworleanstribune.