Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk has become known as a health care advocate and expert in Annapolis but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has affected her personally with the death of her father, cousin and four close friends.
Peña-Melnyk, who received the COVID-19 vaccine last week, moderated a virtual town hall Monday, Feb. 1 to reinforce the importance of battling a virus that has killed about 7,000 Marylanders that include more than 1,200 in Prince George’s County.
“This is not just for us [but] our families as well,” said Peña-Melnyk (D-District 21) of College Park. “We know we have a lot of health care disparities in our Black and brown communities. We need to provide this information so that people can make the decision whether to get a vaccine or not.”
Three doctors associated with the University of Maryland discussed the COVID-19 vaccine, its effect on underserved communities and how data collected won’t require a person’s immigration status.
Being in the health care field, all three also received two doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
“I felt grateful and relieved because I have my 80-year-old mother who lives with me,” said Milagritos Tapia, a pediatric professor and a pediatric disease infectious specialist. “Working on these vaccine trials these last [several] months I’ve interacted with many more people than I would’ve otherwise had if I had not been involved in that work.”
Racial disparities have become apparent in the distribution of the vaccine.
Prior to the town hall, Peña-Melnyk said only 15 percent of Blacks and 3 percent of Latinos have been vaccinated so far. The state of Maryland’s Black population currently sits at 31 percent and the Latino population at 15 percent.
The majority-Black jurisdiction of Prince George’s continues to record the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases with more than 68,000. It also houses the highest number of cases based on zip cope at 20783, which include immigrants in Langley Park, Hyattsville and Chillum.
“Why is it that Black and brown people have taken the brunt of this disease?” Peña-Melnyk said.
There’s more than one answer, said Stacy Garrett-Ray, a certified family physician who also serves as the University of Maryland Medical System’s COVID-19 response community provider liaison.
She said those communities have higher risks of heart and chronic diseases. Some people are essential workers who must also take public transportation and lack of access to the appropriate masks and even hand sanitizer.
“During this time, we have to take care of our health…so it reduces the complications we are seeing,” she said.
One of the main questions during the town hall dealt with where to register to receive a vaccine and the supply.
Wilbur Chen, a science professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said a third vaccine developed by Johnson and Johnson could be approved in the next several weeks by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The company announced Friday a single-shot dose from a clinical phase 3 trial showed 66 percent effectiveness at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19; it increased to 85 percent preventing severe disease.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have higher efficacies at 94 percent and 95 percent, respectively. They require two doses at three and four weeks apart, but stringent storage requirements. The assessment of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine make it easier to store and transport.
“If [Johnson and Johnson] were approved on a Friday, then I would expect the following Monday it would be available and start shipping out to the states and local jurisdictions,” said Chen, who’s also an adult infectious disease physician. “To deliver one dose of vaccine instead of trying to deliver those two doses of vaccine at a set time of 21 or 28 days apart makes it so much easier to vaccinate the population.”
To watch the full town hall hosted by the Maryland legislative Black, Latino and Asian-American/Pacific Islander caucuses, go to https://bit.ly/3cvPn4O.