With almost 500 prisoners and over 1,000 prison staffers refusing a COVID-19 vaccine, on May 1, San Quentin’s Media Department held a Q&A session.
The speed with which the vaccine was developed, its side effects, and its effects on pre-existing conditions were addressed by Kim Rhoads, MD, MS, MPH, and Peter Chin-Hong, MD, healthcare professionals from the University of California, San Francisco.
“There were people on the fence about getting a shot and are now interested in getting one,” said incarcerated filmmaker Brian Asey. By the end of the session, four out of 10 men wanted a COVID-19 vaccine.
Jesse Rose, 24, said at the start that he didn’t want a vaccination. His concerns were the lack of science on the vaccines, the speed of their development, and long-term effects.
“The RNA technology [used in the vaccine] was discovered in 2009. So, we already had the solution. We just didn’t have a problem to solve,” Rhoads said. “COVID was the problem that the solution was looking for. The vaccine went through all four phases of development.”
Chin-Hong added, “Operation Warp Speed was not about the science; it was about the red tape.”
Rose responded that he’s physically active and already had COVID-19, “If I have antibodies, why should I take it?”
Rhoads replied, “We don’t know how long the antibodies last. That data is not reliable.” She continued, “At first, we thought only older people were at risk, but in New York we began seeing younger people have problems.”
Chin-Hong added that with new variants, younger people have a higher likelihood of hospitalization.
Rose said having his questions answered caused him to rethink his stance. On May 5, he took the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“For every person that gets vaccinated, we’re one step closer to community immunity,” Rhoads said.
Chin-Hong emphasized that to prevent the virus from spreading and for community immunity to work, it’s important to vaccinate as many people as possible, in the shortest time.
Reinfections and side effects were addressed.
“It’s worse than the first time,” Rhoads said about reinfections. “People get sicker the second time because you don’t get sick from the virus; you get sick from the immune response.”
Chin-Hong continued, “You get sicker, because your body is trying to fight it. The vaccine keeps your body steady against the virus. It gives the message to your body and your body develops antibodies. The antibodies that the vaccine produces are like the Navy Seals.”
Faitdon Gipson, 49, incarcerated for 33 years, said he thinks the vaccine would complicate his underlying medical issues.
“If I took the vaccine, how do I know that it wouldn’t hurt me?” Gipson asked.
“In the trials — 45,000 people — a lot of them had underlying issues, and they did OK,” Chin-Hong said. “People with underlying conditions did worse after they got COVID. Some of the long-term effects of getting COVID last longer than the side-effects of the vaccine.”
An unanswered question: Kenneth Evans, 67, incarcerated for almost 20 years, brought up the deaths of Larry King and Hank Aaron, commenting that they died shortly after being vaccinated and upon their death, tested positive for COVID-19.
Rhoads acknowledged Evans’ observation but said she was unsure of the actual causes of death.
Evans responded, “At San Quentin, it’s hard to get an aspirin and now you want to give me a free shot. I don’t want to be a guinea pig. Where are we at with this?”
Rhoads answered that no one could predict who’ll die from COVID-19, but the COVID-19 vaccine cuts down the likelihood for someone to be hospitalized.
Evans said he was frustrated, commenting, “My not getting a response [about something] that concerns my life makes me believe more that there’s something about these vaccines that they’re not telling us.”
Rhoads talked about working for an Oakland nonprofit that creates pop-up test sites and door-to-door services aimed at increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“Part of my mission is to reach communities where healthcare is scarce,” Rhoads said. “We want members of the community modeling what works for them — if we let people have the information, that works better.”
Chin-Hong is an infectious disease specialist. He said obstacles to adequate healthcare and effective strategies to prevent diseases from spreading are worrying. He said he “doesn’t want to be silent about healthcare accessibility” and referred to the fact that where people live factors into healthcare access. He cited New York City as an example.
“If you got sick and needed an ambulance, it took longer to get to you if you lived in a neighborhood of color. So, it’s not only about giving the right medical care — it matters where the people get their healthcare.”
- Do people gain weight after contracting the virus?
- How long does immunity last?
- Will a booster shot be needed?
- Is taking vitamin-D preventative?
- What is the impact of the Johnson & Johnson distribution pauses?
The doctors told the men that since COVID-19 is an inflammatory disease, fluid is added to the body, making it appear that someone with the virus has gained weight.
Regarding how long immunity lasts, the doctors predict about six months, however, studies are still out, they said.
Studies show that vitamin-D may have a role, but studies suggest its use in conjunction with other therapies.
Booster shots are being debated, the doctors said, noting that researchers say that new variants may require boosters.
Regarding the Johnson & Johnson pause, it was noted that the risk/reward was nearly one-in-a-million that someone would suffer blood clotting—mostly in women 18-50.
Chin-Hong said he’s relieved to be vaccinated to “protect my family. I was so worried about bringing it home.” He calculated that every two vaccinated persons “moves the dial forward for 10 people.”
Dave Jarrell lamented worldwide pandemics. “Why does the world act so surprised when this happens every 100 years?”
Chin-Hong responded, “At the end of the day, we are just one being on this planet. We have to be humble about our place in the universe.”