When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, scientists were faced with a serious challenge—how to educate the general public on a disease that they themselves knew so little about. During the past year, however, science has made great advances in its knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, even to the point of developing multiple vaccines.
Unfortunately, misinformation has been a trend since even before the pandemic officially began. This is why the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center and Texas A&M University School of Public Health recently partnered to present a series of community webinars on COVID-19 and vaccinations, during which experts from multiple fields explained the science behind the virus and vaccines for those without a science background and for whom English might not be their first language.
Approximately 200 high school students and local community members attended each of the two “Health, Equity & Action: Demystifying COVID-19 & Vaccinations” webinars offered on March 9 and March 10, 2021.
Speakers included research assistant professor Dr. Garett Sansom and instructional assistant professor Dr. Angela Clendenin from the School of Public Health; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) professor Dr. Weihsueh Chiu; professor of biology and Global Health Research Complex chief virologist Dr. Benjamin Neuman; and University professor Dr. Ivan Rusyn.
Throughout both webinars, graduate students Ruby Hernandez, from School of Public Health, and Alina Roman-Hubers, from the toxicology graduate program, served as live English-Spanish translators.
The first presentation focused on demystifying COVID-19 and covered a general overview of what we now know about the disease and the inequities the pandemic has revealed in our communities. This discussion was led by Clendenin on March 9 and Chiu on March 10.
“We have learned so much in one year thanks to many thousands of scientists and doctors around the world,” Chiu said. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also revealed and made worse many inequities in our country. People of color are more likely to get sick, and more likely to die from COVID-19.”
He stressed the important role vaccines will play in addressing these inequities and in the overall effort to overcome the virus.
Misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines are causing many people to avoid vaccination. To address these misconceptions and explain how the vaccines work, the second presentation focused on the SARS-CoV-2 variants and vaccines, led by Neuman on March 9 and Rusyn on March 10.
Learning about vaccines from expert scientists will be vital in increasing the general public’s trust in COVID-19 vaccination. For example, many of the webinar attendees expressed excitement about getting to learn about the virus and vaccines directly from Neuman, who has been involved in coronavirus research since 1996.
“Regardless of the type of vaccine that you may be able to get, please be assured that they all have been rigorously tested and are highly effective,” Rusyn said. “We should have as many people vaccinated as possible, quickly, to prevent severe disease and death and to stop the spread of the virus.”
This event was made possible by support from two of Texas A&M’s community partners, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s) and Furr High School, located in a largely Hispanic community in Houston.
The webinars began with a welcome from a Furr High School student and an introduction from Sansom, who played a key role in organizing the event using his connections to Houston community partners, and concluded with a Q&A session to answer student questions and closing remarks from Sansom and College of Architecture associate professor and Superfund Center Community Engagement leader Dr. Galen Newman.
Plans are being developed to hold similar webinars in the near future with other community partners in Houston. Future events open to the public will be announced on the Superfund Center’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
“Usually, when we share new knowledge, that new information actually leads to more questions, and I hope that is where we find ourselves today,” Clendenin said. “Become consumers of information, but be informed about where you get it. If I have done my job today, hopefully each of you will feel empowered to do the right thing, to be Texans helping Texans, to engage in behaviors that continue to protect our families, our friends, and our neighbors, so that each person lost to this pandemic will not have passed in vain.”
This event took place as part of the Superfund Center’s Community Engagement Core, which focuses on youth engagement to foster the development of the next generation of environmental health scientists and advocates. Newman serves as the principle investigator for this core and Sansom serves as a co-investigator.
A full recording of the March 10 webinar is available on the CVMBS YouTube channel.
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216