Questions About the Delta Variant? Dr. Jenkins of Native American Health Center Answers Them

A year ago, we spoke with Dr. Gerard Jenkins, Chief Medical Director of the Native American Health Center in Oakland and San Francisco as part of our public discussion forum, Oakland Voices Tonight.

Last week, Dr. Jenkins joined us once again to shed some insight on this new phase of the pandemic we are currently in with the Delta variant. Below is a partial transcript of our conversation with Dr. Jenkins. Some of the key takeaways: vaccinations are still key to beating the virus and variants, the incubation period for the Delta variant is shorter, and taking care of your mental health is also key. 

Watch the full video for more information about COVID in these current times.

OV: There is an overflow of data being shared that sometimes does not present the most accurate picture of COVID. What is your source for reliable data? 

Dr. Jenkins: This is an important question. The general public may not be as familiar with some of the data that’s available, and that specifically is our county data. During the pandemic, each specific county in every state is reporting their data back to the CDC, the state, and federal government. The CDC is also a source. If you choose to go there, you can actually sort by state and also by county to see the distribution of cases, vaccination rates, and things like that. The county data gets updated pretty regularly within a matter of days. The national dashboard is a little less in real time as that gets updated more on a weekly to bi-weekly basis. But it is a good source to look at. Nationally, it’s really only about 51% of people who’ve been vaccinated in the United States, which is low and unfortunate.  

OV: Explain this new Delta variant phase that we’re in. How are we living life a bit differently?

Dr. Jenkins: Life is a lot different from a year ago. Around the time I last spoke to Oakland Voices, we just had a small uptick in cases. If you look at the data then, we were actually on a very good downward trajectory until June 30 [of 2021]. The Delta variant really was already here in the United States at that time but it was not as prevalent. In just a matter of six weeks to seven weeks, the case rates now are identical to that of January 2021. That’s terrifying for any provider. This Delta variant has different mutations that allow it to have less incubation time for people to get exposed and infected. It’s really affecting the unvaccinated adversely and it’s going to continue to mutate. In order to beat the virus at this point, we have to have a better vaccination rate. Unless you do vaccinations at a very fast rate, and on a very broad scale, you’re going to continue to probably run into this problem, unfortunately.

OV: Explain the lessened incubation period of this new variant. 

Dr. Jenkins: With the virus we saw last year, it typically took about six days for symptoms to appear. People would then go get tested. What’s happening is the virus itself is changing some of the ways that it is identified by the immune system. The spike protein, and some of the other molecular structures within the virus itself. That makes it easier for the virus to infect people. Meaning it becomes more contagious, and it takes less time to infect someone. Two or three times as many people can get affected in that shorter period of time. And going back to what the data says, if you look at the CDC dashboard, you see just this huge upward trend of people who are getting infected. And that’s because the virus, the Delta variant, in particular, has found ways to better transmit and affect people, and that’s a concern.

OV:  So how do vaccines actually work?

Dr. Jenkins: When the information came out in the middle of November 2020, that there is a vaccine in the works, the first thing I did was look at the science. In understanding the technology, [I thought] that’s incredible. The type of vaccine that they made is different from what we typically have done. Scientists are using this thing called mRNA, which is basically the genetic material that looks like the virus but is a broken down form.  When you get the vaccine, it’s injected into your arm, and then your own body makes copies that look like the virus. Your body is making the antibodies, which is the ability to fight that virus. If or when you get exposed to it, your body is able to mount an immune response. Simplistically, it’s a different type of vaccine. The technology is well-known, it’s not something that’s been readily used before. From a science standpoint, it actually makes a lot of sense. Because you’re able to make the vaccine faster, your body is able to build up an immune response, within a matter of three weeks. It has really high efficacy that we’ve seen. 

The second part is that just recently, we were made aware that we will have to get third doses or booster shots. The guidance just came out in joint statements that there’s going to be a booster dose available to all by the end of September. The reason for that is because although your body has built the immune response over a period of time, that immunity over time is going to go down. This forthcoming third dose will give a boost to make your immune response robust again.

OV: What have you, doctors, and other healthcare workers learned over this past year and a half? 

Dr. Jenkins: One of the things that has been hard for myself as a healthcare leader, and seeing patients on the front line, is just patience. You have to have patience and hope in this process. That’s easier said than done. Being able to know that it’s a long haul, and that you won’t win that game overnight. So one of the things we’ve done at NAHC is continue to educate our staff on vaccines and conduct training and listening sessions. It’s also a matter of  continuing to partner with the county. We’re making sure to identify people who are at high risk so that they get a third dose early. The last thing I’ll say is that we, as a society [need to] take a collective approach on this. We’re not really taking ownership, just about ourselves, but about how we interact with that in society. And I don’t think anybody wants to go back to shelter-in-place. 

OV: Obviously, NAHC is the Native American Health Center. And we know nationally, vaccination rates are highest among Indigenous peoples. Considering our nation’s history with Indigenous people, why do you think vaccination rates are so high? 

Dr. Jenkins: I have been privileged to work at Native American Health Center. Even though our name is Native American Health Center, we serve all different types of people from all different walks of life. Our CEO is Martin Waukazoo and he is a Native chief. He is very adamant about taking care of his people and making sure that we’re doing the best we can for everyone. I think it starts with people like him. And I think of Indian Health Service, IHS, which is one of the first places to also get the vaccines and start vaccinating people. I think that helps set the stage for all the success of things that you’re seeing now. (The vaccination rate for self-identified Native Americans is close to 86% fully vaccinated in Alameda County).

Additionally, we’re doing education to all of our members, and as the Native American Health Center, for people who are part of a tribe to make sure we serve that community as well. I would say it’s great leadership from IHS that really pushed the vaccines out early, great leadership such as Martin Waukazoo. As an African American, numbers for Latinx and African American is lower, and I think we can still continue to do work there as well. But I’m really glad to see we’ve done so well for our community we serve at Native American Health Center.

OV: Looking at the overall health care profession, how are you doing? How do you keep your head up and keep moving forward?

Dr. Jenkins: Thank you for that question. We are all very busy. We’re seeing a lot of patients. The most important thing is that you need to take some time for yourself both mentally, physically, spiritually, whatever that is. I have really emphasized that in my meetings. When you’re on an airplane for example, you have to put your own air mask first, before the person next to you. So you have to prioritize yourself and make sure to take that time for yourself mentally, physically, spiritually, to be in the right place. This moment we’re in is especially a time to be patient, while continuing to do your best and persevere. And I think that’s the thing that is really important. It can literally be taking a day trip with yourself or being with a close person who’s in your circle. Those things will go a very long way for mental, spiritual, and physical. I think that’s going to get a lot of people through this pandemic, along with getting vaccinated. 

OV: Is there anything else that we should know that I did not ask?

Dr. Jenkins: I’ll leave with this: as a society, to beat this virus we’ve got to continue taking precautions, getting vaccinated, and pushing others to do the same. Now it almost feels like we’re back to square one. So I would just encourage everyone to stay safe, take your precautions, get vaccinated, and encourage others to do the same. All of us want to go back to some sense of normalcy. 

About Iris Crawford

Iris M. Crawford, is a poet and social justice advocate. Hailing from New York City, she is a first-generation Guyanese- American. Her journey has allowed her to empower communities through health care advocacy, education and environmental justice. In 2018, Iris was selected as a semi-finalist Fulbright Scholar for an English Teaching Assistantship in South Africa. She also just became a resident of the 2020 Shuffle Collective Literary Arts Residency where she will be working to strengthen her creative work, gain skills to continue growing professionally and build community. She earned her BA in Political Philosophy and African American Studies from Syracuse University. View all posts by Iris Crawford →

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