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Health, Science, Environment

Illinois Health Director Seeks to Reassure East St. Louis Residents About COVID Vaccine

In this file photo, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike addresses the news media at a COVID-19 news conference in Chicago. On Thursday, Ezike answered COVID vaccine questions from East St. Louis residents during a virtual event.
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In this file photo, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike addresses the news media at a COVID-19 news conference in Chicago. On Thursday, Ezike answered COVID vaccine questions from East St. Louis residents during a virtual event.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

EAST ST. LOUIS — Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, led a discussion about COVID-19 vaccines for residents in the East St. Louis community and beyond during a virtual event on Thursday evening.

“An Evening with Dr. Ezike” was hosted by Macedonia Baptist Church in East St. Louis and facilitated by its pastor, Rev. J. Kevin James, Jr. The conversation was streamed on the church’s Facebook page and on the pastor’s YouTube channel. More than 250 tuned in to the live event.

Thursday’s conversation was the second informational event on COVID-19 vaccines hosted by Dr. Ezike that was catered to metro-east residents. Last month, the United Congregations of Metro East held a town hall with Dr. Ezike to better inform the community about the vaccine’s safety. Both events are a part of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s effort to ensure Black communities are accurately informed about the vaccine, given the history of medical racism that has led to some Black people being reluctant to take the vaccine.

About half of Black adults in the country aren’t confident that the development of the vaccine considers the needs of Black people, according to a December survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Illinois, 1,156,453 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered as of Thursday afternoon. In St. Clair County, which includes East St. Louis, 18,693 doses were administered. The county’s first mass vaccination site opened on Monday at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville.

Here are some questions that were asked of Dr. Ezike during the event:

Q. What are the risks in receiving the vaccine?

A. ‘When you balance the risk of getting COVID versus the risk of getting the vaccine, for me, I think it’s a clear choice. I’ve heard people say ‘Well, I don’t like needles,’ and I understand that. I’m not a fan of people injecting needles into my body for sure, but I think about it like this: if you have COVID and if you’re not lucky enough to have a mild case and somehow you end up hospitalized, you’re going to have a whole lot of needles in your future if you’re in the hospital. If it’s one needle to avoid a lot of needles and a long hospital stay where people cannot visit you because of the COVID restrictions, I think I know where my choice is, and I made that choice.”

“I just got my second dose two days ago. I was gearing up (to experience side effects) because people have said that the second dose can really knock you off your tail. I just had some soreness in the arm, but I have had friends that said they had chills and had a more intense reaction, so there’s a range of symptoms and feelings that can happen after the first and second dose. For me, I just experienced arm soreness twice with the first and the second.”

Q. How long is the vaccine’s effectiveness?

A. “We can’t say for sure .... you keep hearing about the variants circulating out of the U.K., Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, so we know that these viruses will start to mutate and maybe change, so will it be something like the flu where you have to get a booster every year? Maybe. We’re still kind of on our first round with this, so we can’t talk about what we’re going to be dealing with for the round two. Right now, we think the vaccines we have will be effective even against these variants. As new variants come around, will there be changes that maybe some of these vaccines won’t be effective? Time will have to tell. There’s ongoing research. The trials that made it to be authorized, there’s still ongoing studies to keep testing the vaccine to see what we know. A lot of stuff is still happening. It’s not like they’re giving it to you and it’s finished. Ongoing research is happening every day to see what more we can learn from this.”

Q. Are there additional precautions that are taken when given the vaccination if you are allergic to antibiotics such as penicillin?

A. If you have had a history of allergic reaction to an injectable, the only thing that is recommended is that we observe you for, instead of 15 minutes, 30 minutes (after getting the vaccine) because if you had an injection and you reacted to it, you would let the individuals know at the vaccination site. That place will have the epinephrine, the EpiPen, to help treat you if that reaction occurs, but we have seen that the rate of those allergic anaphylactic reactions is one in a million. That’s very, very rare, but nobody knows who that one is going to be, so every site has to be prepared with the epinephrine and keeping everyone observed for 15 or 30 minutes.

Q. In some communities of color, there are stores that are getting vials of the vaccine and are charging people for it. Can you speak to the security and the safety measures about the vaccine that IDPH-approved sites are distributing?

A. “I have said, over and over, if anybody is trying to charge you for the vaccine, you better run, not walk, away. All of these vaccines were given completely free of charge to the state of Illinois. We are passing it on to local health departments and pharmacies and hospitals with no charge. No one is supposed to have any bill or fee or charge associated with. Insurance or no insurance, documented or not documented, (you can get it). We’ve tried to give some suggestions to people that are vaccinating to properly dispose of the vials and make sure that they’re going to be taken away. Anybody that’s charging you, run away because that is not a legit provider and they probably don’t even have real vaccine and I don’t want anyone to take any risks with anything that has been tainted or messed with in any way.”

Q. How is IDPH ensuring that communities of color have equitable access to taking the vaccine?

A. “We have two issues that we’re dealing with. We absolutely have to make the access. This region has had some of the highest rates for infection in the state. We divided the state into the 11 COVID regions, and Region 4 has case rates that are 50% higher than the state rate, so there’s more burden of disease in this area, and so that’s why it’s so important that we prioritize vaccination in this area. The reason it took so long for Region 4 to come out of the tightened restrictions is because there was lots of infection, because it was hard to get people out of the hospital. There were numbers of people in the hospital and beds were still tied up, so because there weren’t enough open beds, we didn’t feel comfortable loosening mitigations, so it’s really a priority in this region. That’s why we’re directing the National Guard to help with vaccination sites. It’s why we’re going to make sure more pharmacies in the area have the vaccine so people have access, but we also need people to want it and go get it.”

“That’s why another important part of plan is making sure we’re having lots of conversations, lots of town halls, lots of radio talks shows to make sure that people not only have the access but have the information that they need to make the decision hopefully to get the vaccine. It’s why I’ll spend all my evening talking to Black churches, Latino churches, different faith groups and different organizations because I want to get the word out.”

Q. Is the state of Illinois tracking detailed demographic information about people who are getting the vaccine, including their race, gender and age. If not, are there plans to do so?

A. “Everybody who’s supposed to be giving this vaccine had to promise, it was a part of the terms of you being a COVID vaccinator, that you have to give us that information. For every single dose that you administer, you have to give the name, date of birth, address, race, ethnicity, etc. We have that information and we are looking at that to see if all of our groups in the state ( are getting vaccinated). I don’t want to create more disparity. We have already seen how horribly this virus has treated Black and brown communities, and we don’t want to worsen the disparity more by not having the vaccine reach those same communities that have been hit hardest.”

“But some of that is that we have to choose to get the vaccine because we are trying to make it available. We don’t want to punish or coerce or force anybody (to take it), but we want to give people access to the information, ability to ask questions, hear concerns and hopefully help people make the best decision and that is to get the vaccine.”

In East St. Louis, residents 65 years and older can call the East Side Health District at 618-271-8722 to make an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine. The district’s next vaccine hub in the city will be on Wednesday, Feb. 10, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizen Center on 6755 State Street. Doses of the vaccine will be administered by appointment only.

DeAsia Page is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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