Dr. Pam Simmons, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Woman’s Hospital, receives the COVID-19 vaccine.

As COVID-19 vaccine distribution continues across Louisiana, medical professionals are reassuring citizens that it is safe, effective and has shown no serious long-term side effects.

One myth that has spread on social media is that the vaccine can harm women who are pregnant or breastfeeding by damaging the placenta or causing other effects that may lead to infertility. However, multiple studies from leading women’s health organizations have shown these concerns are unfounded.

“Your body is not recognizing the placenta as foreign and trying to attack it. That’s the biggest misinformation that is out there, and it simply is not true. It’s not the way a vaccine works,” said Dr. Pam Simmons, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Woman’s Hospital. “Nothing has shown that by receiving the vaccine when you are pregnant or breastfeeding that you will have adverse effects beyond the normal side effects we have seen in other patients who receive the vaccine,” Simmons said.

Simmons also noted that when pregnant women do contract COVID-19, studies show they have a higher risk of severe illness and requiring ICU treatment.

“Ultimately, a woman needs to think about the risk factors and consult with her physician,” Simmons said. “The important thing is to be well-informed and weigh the risks and the benefits before making a decision.”

Dr. Vince Cataldo, MD, medical oncologist, Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center said many of his patients want the vaccine as soon as possible because they know they have weakened immune systems, caused either by cancer itself or the effects of treatment.

Now that the vaccine has become more widely available and patients with cancer have received it, Cataldo said he and other oncologists are recommending their patients receive the vaccine as soon as possible.

“That’s coming from all of the leading medical societies,” he said. “We’ve seen how the vaccine works and the legitimacy of the science behind it. We’re seeing the same degree of side effects as we are in patients who are not affected by cancer and not receiving chemotherapy.”

Cataldo noted that other studies indicate that when patients with cancer contract COVID-19, they are twice as likely to have severe symptoms, with an increased likelihood of needing to be put on a ventilator or dying from the virus.

“That’s yet more evidence to suggest that patients with malignancy should get the vaccine as soon as they can legitimately do so,” he said. “It’s also important for people within the patient’s home and those who are close contacts to get vaccinated. We need to decrease the likelihood of transmission, especially within the home.”

While all patients should consult with a physician before getting the vaccine, Cataldo said it is especially important for those who have undergone or will receive a bone marrow transplant or those undergoing the most aggressive forms of chemotherapy.

Many Louisiana medical facilities continue to receive vaccines each week and are booking appointments for eligible individuals. Healthcare officials are working to ensure people are scheduled to receive both doses of the vaccine.

“The minute you make an appointment for the first vaccine, you automatically get an appointment for the second dose,” said Dr. Aldo Russo, regional medical director for Ochsner Baton Rouge.

Russo said evidence has shown the vaccine is effective for the original COVID-19 virus and newer strains. Such mutations are common among all viruses, he added.

Russo added that he understands the fatigue and frustration that has set in after nearly a year of the virus affecting people’s lives. However, he encouraged people to continue with measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, even with vaccines now available, since not everyone can or will receive vaccines for several months.

“Every time I see people wearing a mask or social distancing or getting the vaccine, I imagine seeing the virus dying because it doesn’t have a host to proliferate,” Russo said. “When we wear a mask and social distance, there are trillions of coronaviruses that have been unable to find a new host, eventually dying.”

Although COVID-19 testing continues throughout the state, health professionals are still seeing some disparities. For example, researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center have seen that fewer Black residents are getting tested. Possible reasons for this include a deeply-rooted mistrust of the medical community, lack of transportation and childcare, or job schedules with little time off for testing.

To help address this problem, Pennington Biomedical has obtained competitive funding from the National Institutes of Health to test 2,000 people who live in underserved Baton Rouge communities. Pennington Biomedical is working with Mayor Sharon Weston-Broome’s HealthyBR initiative to offer free saliva tests through 16 churches, schools, community centers and clinics in the 70805, 70807, 70811, 70812 and 70814 ZIP codes.

“We think more people may be willing to undergo tests, and later get vaccinated, if they can do so in places that are familiar and where they feel most comfortable,” said Dr. John Kirwan, executive director of Pennington Biomedical.

In addition, Kirwan said Pennington Biomedical has partnered with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center to serve as the Community Vaccination supersite for Baton Rouge. The facilities will be able to serve more than 7,000 people each week, depending on vaccine availability.

Kirwan added that the data from COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution in Black communities will help those in the healthcare profession better understand medical disparities and how to address those in the future.

“The information we generate will help guide decisions on how to best support these communities with ongoing COVID testing, which will be needed as new COVID variants emerge,” he said. “The data will also help find ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy and to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines.”

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