First COVID-19 vaccine

Currently, Illinois is in Phase 1B of its vaccine distribution process. Included are residents 65 and older, but also healthcare workers, residents at long-term care facilities, first responders, teachers and other frontline essential workers.

Dr. Stonewall McCuiston was originally on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but upon a lot of “soul searching” and researching data, he concluded it would give him his best chance of surviving the pandemic.

“I don’t want to get my patients sick. I don’t want to get my family sick. I don’t want to get you sick,” said McCuiston, a pediatrician and internal medicine specialist with Riverside Healthcare. “I hate shots. Anybody who knows me knows that. For me to get a shot, you know I had to believe it worked.”

McCuiston was one of several local medical professionals and church leaders to speak Tuesday during a virtual town hall hosted by the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP.

The meeting, viewable on the Kankakee NAACP Facebook page, was intended to dispel myths as well as address vaccine hesitancy among people of color.

McCuiston said he was asked in the early days of the pandemic about a rumor that Black and brown people could not get COVID-19; he responded immediately that the claim was untrue.

“The virus does not discriminate,” he said.

McCuiston also explained that the vaccines do not alter a person’s DNA; they introduce a harmless version of the virus into the body to prepare cells to fight infection when introduced to the virus again.

LaTivia Carr, vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer at Riverside, said she has not visited her mother, a resident in a long-term care facility, for almost a year because of the pandemic.

“If me being vaccinated is going to place me in closer proximity to being able to get that hug from my mom, certainly that’s a reason for me to go ahead and be vaccinated,” she said.

Carr said reactions to the vaccine are generally mild; side effects such as fatigue, fever, headache, and pain at the injection site are all normal.

Experiencing flu-like symptoms is a result of the body creating an immune response to the deadened version of the virus, she said.

Dr. Kalisha Hill, chief medical officer at AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital, said the hospital is encouraging everyone to receive the vaccine as soon as they fall into an eligible group.

“The physicians feel it is very safe and the risks of side effects are much smaller than the risks posed by having the COVID-19 virus itself,” she said.

Hill emphasized that those who have been vaccinated may still come in contact with the virus and spread it to others, so continuing to wear face masks and practice social distancing is advised.

People who have already contracted COVID-19 and recovered should get vaccinated as well, she said.

Additionally, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has stated that pregnancy and breastfeeding do not preclude women from receiving the vaccine.

Addressing distrust

Distrust of the vaccine has been most prevalent among minority populations, Hill noted.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 13,000 Americans conducted in mid-November, 58 percent of Black people said they planned to decline vaccination, compared with 39 percent of whites, 37 percent of Hispanics and 17 percent of Asian Americans.

“We must build trust in the vaccine, because it doesn’t help if just a few people get vaccinated,” Hill said. “We really need maximal vaccination of as many people in our country as possible.”

The Rev. Montele Crawford, senior pastor with Morning Star Baptist Church in Kankakee, urged community members to strongly consider getting vaccinated.

Crawford and his family contracted COVID-19 around Thanksgiving. He experienced shortness of breath, headaches, body aches, fatigue, confusion, and loss of taste and smell.

“You can imagine losing your sense of taste and smell on the Thanksgiving holiday,” he recalled. “It just made it all the more worse.”

Though they all recovered, it was an experience he does not want to go through or witness others going through again.

“I am a person who has never had a flu shot; even though it’s been recommended, I never had one,” he said. “But I will take this vaccination because I really do not want to put my family in jeopardy. I do not want to put the church in jeopardy. I do not want to put the community in jeopardy.”

The Rev. Rodney Lake, pastor of Pembroke Fellowship Church, said three members of his congregation died in an eight-month time period due to COVID-19. Several more members have gotten the virus and recovered.

With so many myths and so much misinformation going around, Lake said he sought advice from medical professionals about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s not my job to twist anyone’s arm to not take it or to take it, but I want them to be educated so that they can make the best decision for themselves as well as their families,” he said.

Lake said he prays people will get on board and do what is necessary to relieve the community from the pandemic.

“The truth is, as a church we have been praying for God to send a cure, and it’s my prayer that this is it,” he said.

A slow process

John Bevis, Kankakee County Health Department administrator, answered common questions about the vaccine. He said over 12,000 cases of COVID-19 have been contracted in Kankakee County.

As such, the health department contact-traced over 60,000 people and made over 800,000 phone calls to track the virus.

The health department is currently working with area hospitals and pharmacies to vaccinate people in the Phase 1A and 1B groups. Approximately 30,000 people in Kankakee County fall within those two groups.

“We are asking for your patience because right now that’s a lot of people to vaccinate in a short amount of time, and the vaccine is very limited right now,” Bevis said.

Bevis expects the county will remain in the current vaccination phase for weeks, if not months, until more vaccines are readily available.

The health department has vaccinated over 1,400 K-12 teachers and staff at 11 school district clinics and is starting second doses for those individuals this week, Bevis said.

People can go to www.kankakeehealth.org and fill out the survey to register for the vaccine. People can also call 815-802-9449 to register. Those who are not in the Phase 1A or 1B groups can still register ahead of time.

Due to high demand and limited vaccine availability, it may take several weeks for the health department or one of the hospitals or pharmacies to contact individuals for their appointment.

“I hope you make the choice not only to protect yourself, but to protect the ones you love, your family, your friends and your neighbors,” Bevis said. “I promise we will continue to vaccinate our community until everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated. We will not stop until everyone is served.”