Dr. Jasmine Zapata: ‘I can’t abandon my post.’

One of our heroes on the frontline of the COVID war is Dr. Jasmine Y. Zapata.

Like several medical professionals, she sprang into action when the coronavirus invaded Dane County in early 2020. Zapata, a UW Health newborn hospitalist practicing at UnityPoint Health-Meriter, and board-certified preventive medicine physician witnessed firsthand the ravages that this disease can inflict, and racial disparities illuminated amid the mounting crisis.

Over the course of 2020, Zapata participated in numerous community empowerment events related to COVID-19 awareness and education.  Then, the unthinkable happened. The coronavirus invaded her body, along with her husband, her mom and one of her three children last November. Each tested positive for COVID-19 within a 48-hour period. Fortunately, the family recovered.  

The experience gave way to Zapata stepping up to help others once again. She donated her convalescent plasma to help current COVID-19 patients recover. Plasma is the liquid part of your blood. It’s mostly water but also contains antibodies, which help fight off deadly diseases. When someone has recovered from COVID-19, they have unique antibodies in their plasma that can help others fight off the disease if they donate it. 

Zapata and her husband donated their plasma together on New Year’s Eve. 

A third of Black Americans are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. UMOJA Magazine reached out to Zapata, not only to thank her for her sacrifices and passion to medicine, but to also lean on her expertise about whether or not the COVID-19 vaccines are something trustworthy.

UMOJA: Dr. Zapata thank you for all that you do to keep us safe and healthy. It’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. What burden has been placed on you as a Black doctor to battle this virus that’s disproportionately harming communities of color?

Dr. Zapata:  It has impacted me in many ways. I personally had COVID-19 as well as three of my immediate family members last year and it took a while to recover. Additionally, it has played a big toll on my mental health. 

I do carry a heavy burden on my heart knowing one out of every 645 Black Americans has died from COVID-19. I’m doing all I can to protect my family and my community. I lost a great aunt to COVID-19 and it was really hard for me emotionally having to do the celebration of life over Zoom. Going into rooms of patients I know are COVID-19 positive and knowing there’s a chance I can bring it home to my family is scary ꟷ but I can’t abandon my post. Seeing some of my fellow healthcare colleagues across the country on the frontlines dying and sacrificing their lives caring for others is tough as well.

UMOJA: Why does the medical community think there’s hesitancy in getting the COVID vaccine and what is being done to address the issue?

Dr. Zapata: In my personal opinion, I believe some of the reasons some individuals are hesitant to get the COVID vaccine are because it’s new, there have been unethical experiments in the past as it relates to vaccines, and there is a lot of healing that still needs to take place between the community and some healthcare and public health systems. There are many efforts underway to address this issue. 

Some that I am particularly excited about and have been involved in are 1) aiming to reform current systems and policies within healthcare and public health that do not promote health equity as much as they could be, 2) increasing diversity within the healthcare and public health workforce, 3) ensuring that research teams studying COVID-19 vaccines include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC ) lead investigators and co-investigators, 4) working on ways the healthcare and public health systems can earn back the trust of the community by addressing the root causes of reasons trust was broken in the first place and 5) having multiple ongoing community conversations and listening sessions about this topic.

UMOJA: Culturally, Black families believe a tablespoon of cod liver oil or Dr. Charles Fletcher’s Castoria will cure any and all ills. How do you convince people to listen to the advice of the medical professionals when it comes to combating COVID-19?

Dr. Zapata: My personal approach is not to “convince” people of anything. I remind people in my community that they are ultimately the one to make the best health decision for them and I am here to help them collect information about all of their options and make the best decision for them. My approach is to empower people with knowledge, compassion, and a listening ear and help them come up with the best choice for them.  I also use a lot of storytelling and specific accounts I have personally witnessed or heard about as a medical doctor to illustrate my point and the urgency of us all working together to combat COVID-19.

UMOJA: Similarly, Dr. Zapata, how do you address those who believe in the power of prayer to cure all illnesses? In other words, what’s the best way to convince people, especially Black people, how to listen to scientific findings?

Dr. Zapata: That’s a great question. I am personally a woman of faith and I do believe in the power of prayer, however, I also believe that God created scientists, doctors, nurses, immunologists, and public health professionals to come up with cures, medicines, surgeries, and other medical interventions to manifest many of the miracles we pray for. 

It reminds me about the illustration of a man stranded in the water and praying for God to save him and a life raft drops down from Heaven, but the man is too busy closing his eyes praying that he doesn’t even realize the raft came to save him and he drowns. In my personal opinion, I believe that when we pray for things, it’s up to God to decide HOW he wants to manifest that prayer. Sometimes it will be in a miraculous way in the snap of a finger, sometimes it will be connecting with a doctor who can solve the problem, sometimes it will be by a new scientific invention or cure that is developed years later. I believe that faith, prayer and science all beautifully work together to help people ultimately live purposeful and healthy lives. 

Another way I think about it is baking a cake or building something- you need many different ingredients and parts to all come together to reach the ultimate goal. That’s how I view faith, science, medicine, and prayer – all interconnected and synergistic.

UMOJA: There’s several myths that range from going blind to giving birth to a child with down syndrome if inoculated with COVID-19 vaccination. Can you address the misconceptions?

Dr. Zapata: There have been numerous studies on the COVID-19 vaccine on people around the world and there is no documented evidence or cases of those things occurring. Other than a few exceptionally rare side effects (as with any other vaccine on the market), the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be safe and effective for millions of people across the U.S.

UMOJA: President Joe Biden announced by the end of May there will be enough vaccines available for every adult American. How can the medical community convince Black and Brown communities to get this lifesaving shot in the arm?

Dr. Zapata: Again, I personally do not aim to “convince” anyone of anything. My goal is to share information and help people ultimately make the best decision for themselves. Just like when we take a car to a mechanic and trust their training and expertise, my hope is that people will acknowledge the many years we have studied as medical doctors, public health professionals, scientists and researchers and trust us. I know it’s not always easy for people to trust us, but all I can do is show how much I love and care for my community by my actions and then hope they take my words to heart.

UMOJA: What percentage of people in the country must be vaccinated in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus in its tracks?

Dr. Zapata: Great question. According to the CDC: “The proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known. The percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity varies with each disease. For example, herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated. The remaining 5% will be protected by the fact that measles will not spread among those who are vaccinated.”

UMOJA: What main obstacles did you personally face amid this new 21st century pandemic?

Dr. Zapata: Personally, it’s been really hard for me not to see some of my family members, particularly my dad, grama, little brothers and other family members from out of town and out of state. 

UMOJA: Will the vaccine have to be tailored annually much like the Flu shot to address any new variants?

Dr. Zapata: There is ongoing surveillance and research into this very question. We do not know for sure yet, but my personal prediction is yes there will need to be some booster shots of some sort at some interval of time.

UMOJA: How soon should youngsters under the age of 18 begin receiving the vaccine?

Dr. Zapata: There are ongoing studies looking into the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for those 18 and under. Some predict there will be a vaccine available to them before the end of the year but we aren’t entirely sure yet. 

UMOJA: Any final words of advice to UMOJA Magazine readers and their families?

Dr. Zapata: We are all in this together. Many readers may be facing difficult times as this pandemic has devastated many in our community economically, physically, emotionally, socially, mentally and even spiritually.  Let’s just keep taking one month at a time, one day at a time, one hour at a time, even one minute at a time if we have to. Give yourself permission to experience joy each day even if in the smallest of things like letting the sunshine on your face and taking a breath of fresh outside air. Take care of your mental health and be proactive about finding ways to heal from many of the psychological impacts this pandemic has had on us. I just want everyone reading this ꟷ children and adults ꟷ to know from the bottom of my heart that I’m sending my love to you all. We WILL get through this together.