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Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy and the Impact of Reopenings on Mental Health 

Let’s Talk About Health is a monthly segment featuring Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, the executive and medical director of Metropolitan Human Services District. In the latest interview, Dr. Dunham and Susan Henry with The New Orleans Tribune talk more about vaccination hesitancy in the Black community and also discuss the impacts of the ongoing pandemic and easing of restrictions on mental health. 

The New Orleans Tribune: Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19—more than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Black adults are also more likely to take a “wait and see” approach before getting a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. What do you say to someone who wants to wait and see approach, in an effort to make sure the vaccines are safe?

Dr. Dunham: I think what they are trying to do is balance the unknown risks that people are struggling with. I honestly think it may take years to get enough information about the vaccine to settle people’s fears. We do know that hospital rates are high and ventilator rates are high. We know that if a person contracts COVID-19, the chances of them becoming extremely sick is more probable than becoming sick as a result of the COVID-19 vaccination. 

The New Orleans Tribune: What do you say to people concerned that the vaccine development process was rushed? 

Dr. Dunham: The problem in that particular case is that people do not really talk about the vaccination development process on a regular basis. It’s not a regular dinner-table conversation.  This is highly scientific information. The course of developing any vaccine takes decades, and this one is no different because the technology is extremely novel. This vaccine has moved at a more rapid pace than others due to the current circumstances. Over the course of the last 18 months,  there was a surge in people who have contracted the virus, so there were more people by which to test the efficacy of the vaccine. Usually, people have to volunteer for experimental vaccine trials to get enough data to qualify for FDA approval. While the testing process was new, the technology has been around for over 10 years. 

The new orleans Tribune: What’s the best way to find a vaccine distribution location in your local area? 

Dr. Dunham: The best thing for the public to do is use the “211” number to find a vaccination site in your area. The other option is to visit the city’s website at www. ready.nola.gov/vaccines which is very specific to the local area, or the state’s website at www.covidvaccine.la.gov. All of these resources will give you information on vaccination sites in your area. Also, a person could reach out to their doctor or visit a local Walgreens or CVS pharmacy in their area where the vaccination has been made available. 

The New Orleans Tribune: Many states like Texas have eliminated the mandatory state-sanctioned COVID-19 restrictions that were in place to prevent the spread of the virus. In New Orleans, a new set of rules went into effect on Friday, Feb. 26, that put New Orleans in line with the rest of Louisiana in regards to business openings. What are the mental health implications associated with the loosened restrictions?  Are feelings of anxiety or fear normal? What should a person do if they begin to feel anxiety about loosened restrictions?

Dr. Dunham: As we can all well imagine, anxiety is at an all-time high. A lot of people are very worried about the reopenings. There is also a lot of exhilaration and excitement about business and schools re-opening. There is a special sort of excitement for those who did not believe that COVID-19 really existed.  Many people also feel relieved about the reopenings because they feel like the viral load has loosened or that the virus is completely gone, but that is not the truth. The virus is still out there and actually has three different variants. It definitely will not go anywhere if people continue to exercise behaviors that allow it to continue to spread.

The New Orleans Tribune: What resources are available to those who experience extreme anxiety?

Dr. Dunham: Metropolitan Human Services District is positioned to provide services for individuals. MHSD has a formal crisis line and at that line sits licensed physicians that can triage certain conditions and can refer the person for actual treatment. People in need can also call our general resource number and be directed to a crisis counselor and help you cope through your issues via telephone counseling. 

The New Orleans Tribune: The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. The Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.

What resources or services does the Metropolitan Human Services District offer to help combat these types of mental health issues?

Dr. Dunham: Most importantly, people need to understand that they do not have to suffer in silence. MSHD provides a safe and confidential environment with trained professionals who can be the ear that you need. We offer counseling at various levels with counselors who may have experienced similar situations and can help provide valuable information.  MHSD also has prescribers on staff that can prescribe medication, if needed. We have social workers, therapists and counselors available to talk patients through their issues. We have services for ages 0-65, because everyone at every age has been impacted by this virus. 

The New Orleans Tribune: How can someone reach MHSD to get more information about the vaccination or about mental health services? 

Dr. Dunham: We have a couple of different avenues to contact us. If you are in a crisis, or not in a crisis and need services, MHSD’s general phone number is 504-568-3130.  MHSD also has a separate crisis line  504-826-2675, where you will be able to speak directly with a licensed crisis team. We have a number of support systems and resources available through our Care Center which can be accessed by calling our general phone number.  

The New Orleans Tribune extends its gratitude to  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, which  will air live on Facebook @neworleanstribune and Instagram @theneworleanstribune.