POTTSTOWN – It’s no secret that our nation has a troubled past with racial equality. A history of slavery, segregation and institutionalized racial prejudice, mixed with the higher incidents of COVID-19 in communities of color, have created distrust of the benefits of what is likely the most massive national vaccine program in our history.

“COVID-19 has harmed communities of color more than other groups,” explained John Harris, director of healthcare consulting firm Veralon. He says there are solid reasons behind distrust of the healthcare system in minority communities. “This health disparity has led to more illness and more deaths in communities of color. It is important to address this and get as much clear information out there as possible.”

With COVID-19 now responsible for the deaths of more than 381,000 Americans since its onset in March 2020,  massive immunization is looked upon as the one solid hope to significantly cut back the virus. With the vaccine currently offered to healthcare workers with hopes of shifting to the general public in spring, Montgomery County community and healthcare leaders, organized by the Montgomery County Immunization Coalition and TriCounty Health Council, urged people to reconsider getting vaccinated and answered questions at a “Virtual Town Hall” forum that live streamed on Facebook Monday night.

Moderated by Harris, the event included  Montgomery County NAACP President Johnny Corson and ACLAMO Family Centers Executive Director Nelly Jimenez-Arevalo, along with Montgomery County Commission Chair Val Arkoosh, MD, who also has a degree in public health.

Noting the 40-year “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” which ran from 1932 to 1972, Harris said the distrust needs to be addressed.

The notorious syphilis study was run by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control on 600 Black men – 400 of whom had the disease and 200 who did not. The participants, impoverished sharecroppers, were told they would receive free healthcare for six months, but in fact, they were treated with placebos for four decades despite the wide availability of penicillin by 1947.

Of the 600 men in the study, 128 died either directly from syphilis or from complications of the disease.

“Black enslaved men and women were used for medical research, it goes further back than that issue,” said Montgomery County NAACP President Johnny Corson. “Among the older crowd there is fear and doubt of taking the shot or being forced to take the shot because of underlying health issues. Younger people are worried about being used as experiments. There is not enough information coming out to justify them taking the shot.”

Corson said the NAACP nationally has been proactive about information on COVID-19 and the vaccine. In studies done at the national level by the organization, Corson said only “about half of those responding said they will take the vaccine.”

Jimenez said that only about 35 percent of residents from Latin-American communities are comfortable with the vaccine.

“A lot of our community are hesitant,” she said. “There are concerns of safety with how quickly the vaccine came out. Other concerns are if there are hidden costs once you sign up, and going for the shot and having immigration officers waiting there.”

Health care practitioners were on hand to ask questions from the public, with the most natural question being how effective the COVID-19 vaccines can be when they took under a year to bring to market.

“The vaccines have a 95 percent effective rate,” said Community Health and Dental Care Chief Medical Officer Irene Shepherd, adding that both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines were tested on “tens of thousands of people, including communities of color and older adults.”

“It is amazing that it is that effective given the speed with which this came out, but it is both very safe and very effective,” said the nurse practitioner. “That five percent that it is not effective on, it does provide protection against serious illness. No serious side effects show in the trial.”

Shepherd explained that the COVID-19 vaccine does not contain the virus, but instead uses “messenger RNA.”

Messenger Ribonucleic Acid vaccines are a new method to protect against infectious diseases, “although this method has been studied for about 30 years,” said Shepherd.

So instead of the concept of triggering an immune response by injecting weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies, messenger RNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein to start an immune response.

A commonly shared analogy is that COVID-19 is like the flu, which killed around 34,000 people last year. Healthcare professionals on the panel said that while COVID-19, which has killed over 381,000 people since it started, is a viral disorder, and is not the flu.

“It’s much easier to catch” said Montgomery County Office of Public Health Medical Director Dr. Richard Lorraine. “That is part of our problem, the numbers are much higher.”

Lorraine said that the spectrum of symptoms for the illness is wide – with many having little to no symptoms, some having mild colds, some having the fever and chills often associated with the flu, and others getting inflammation in their lungs from the virus, “and those people become seriously ill.”

“This is an inflammatory disease,” said the public health director. “Normal blood oxygen levels should be 96-98 percent, but with COVID-19, it can go down to the low 90s or even into the 80s.  Respiratory problems get COVID-19 patients hospitalized. The illness can be very severe and hard to treat and because there are so many people getting it, it is taxing the healthcare system.”

Lorraine said another problem often seen with COVID-19 patients is blood coagulation – or clotting.  Clots in arteries can keep oxygen from getting to your heart, lungs or brain and cause heart attacks or strokes.

“We will be learning about all of the effects of COVID-19 for years to come,” said the doctor.