Dr. Ijeoma Opara is an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health and the director of the Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab, which focuses on substance use and HIV prevention research for Black and Hispanic adolescents. She received a PhD in family science and human development from Montclair State University, a master's degree in social work from New York University, and a master's degree in public health in epidemiology from New York Medical College.
Here, she writes about how she once had concerns about COVID-19 vaccines — and why she ultimately decided to be vaccinated and start spreading the word to her loved ones.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
The pandemic has been very challenging for me and my loved ones. I am the legal guardian of my older brother, who is autistic and lives in a nearby group home. We lost our mom in 2003 and I became his legal guardian when our father died suddenly in 2010. Although my brother is nonverbal, we understand each other, which still fascinates people who witness our interactions.
Since our father died, I have dedicated every Sunday for just my brother and me. When COVID-19 hit us in March 2020, our weekly visits came to a halt due to the stay-at-home orders. During one of our outside visits, he tried to hug me but then the group home staff stopped him because they didn’t want him touching anyone outside of the home. It hurts me to even write this because our hugs were so special for us. It was one of our ways of communicating with each other that we love each other, and that we are all we have.
Finally, in March 2021, I was able to hug my brother after we both received the Pfizer vaccine. I will always be grateful to science for this.
There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, from the vaccine being the "Mark of the Beast," to the vaccine being a microchip that tracks you once it is injected into your body, to the vaccine causing herpes. These are beliefs that have no scientific backing or accuracy, and are, unfortunately, all rooted in fear of an otherwise safe vaccine.
I am an assistant professor at Stony Brook University and the director of the Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab, where we focus on substance use and HIV prevention research for Black and Hispanic adolescents. I received a PhD in family science and human development from Montclair State University, a master's degree in social work from New York University, and a master's degree in public health in epidemiology from New York Medical College. I’m a lover of education and research and am very passionate about improving health outcomes for Black people.
But I was also once a believer of conspiracy theories, so I understand the thinking behind people who fall for them.
In May 2020, I spoke to a friend of mine who is an epidemiology professor and I confided in him about my concerns about the government hiding the truth about COVID-19 and the vaccine.
He responded, “Ijeoma, remember all the years you went to school? Remember all the publications you have written and continue to write on substance use and HIV prevention? You know your area more than anyone else and have worked incredibly hard to get your doctorate. So why don’t you trust Dr. Fauci and the other scientists that are telling you how to prevent the spread of COVID-19? It’s their job and they have studied viruses like this for decades.”
Once he said that to me, it all started to make sense. I put myself in their shoes and remembered that obtaining a terminal degree (such as a PhD or MD) requires a level of dedication and borderline obsessiveness of knowing the ins and outs of a specific area. I am not an immunologist, virologist, or a biomedical scientist, so why would I not listen to the experts of an area that I was not trained in? It’s their job to protect me and others against viruses.
I am a social scientist and I know how difficult it is to conduct research studies and clinical trials and then publish the findings for the scientific community. I am also aware of the historical mistrust of research connected to deception and intentional harm of ethnic minority groups in the US. Due to those unfortunate circumstances, there are many layers and barriers in place such as the Institutional Review Board, ethics committees, and peer-reviewers who are experts in the field — all of whom perform as gatekeepers against false science. I understand the fears, but I am convinced the COVID vaccine would not be authorized without having good evidence that it is effective.
To be clear, everything — from our over-the-counter medications to the food we eat, to the water we drink to the vaccines most Americans have to take to even attend school — is all made possible by science. The anti-science, anti-vaccine movement is not only scary, but it is not rooted in reality.
I recently shared a personal story on Twitter of an acquaintance of mine who died suddenly from COVID. Out of respect for her family, I will not share personal details about her, but I will say that I was told from a trusted source that she did not want to get the vaccine because she wanted to wait and see what happens.
Her death hit me hard because I was someone she trusted; she often sought my advice for things related to public health. We hadn’t spoken in a few months due to our schedules being busy, but I wished I would have reached out to her to ask her about her thoughts on receiving a vaccine. I can’t help but wonder if I would have changed her mind.
I used to say that obtaining the vaccine was a personal choice, but since the passing of my acquaintance, I’m dedicated to spreading the message to my loved ones about taking the vaccine, whether they want to hear it or not. Sometimes, all it takes is a 10-minute conversation from a trusted source to alleviate valid fears and concerns about the vaccine.
Everything we do has risks. I was fully vaccinated and am lucky enough to say I had just a sore arm for two days. But to be honest, I religiously took Tylenol every eight hours after receiving the vaccine for three days, in an attempt to prevent any discomfort. The side effects from the vaccine are nothing compared to getting COVID-19 and potentially facing hospitalization or death.
I have no regrets.
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