Breaking Barriers: Setting the Record Straight about COVID-19, Grief and Mental Health-- Jasmine Cobb, LCSW
By Lisa Savage | Jul 11, 2023
This year’s theme for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Social Work Month is “Social Work Breaks Barriers”, which is exemplified by NASW’s Connect to End COVID-19 initiative. This effort, undertaken in partnership with the University of Texas/Austin with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is aimed at equipping social workers to support clients in informed decision making about becoming vaccinated.
Social workers are trusted messengers because we advocate and support transparency, education and informed decision-making, including about health. We meet clients where they are and are not judgmental. These values also hold true with respect to informed decision making about the COVID-19 vaccinations.
The third year of the global pandemic is upon us, and as of today, more than 1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Many of these people were unvaccinated, even though vaccines are safe and effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, and widely available. Indeed, only 70 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and fewer than 18 percent have also received the newly updated booster that was approved in September 2022. Of particular concern are people who, due to underlying medical and mental health conditions, are at greater risk of severe illness. Below is information from Connect to End COVID- 19 intended to facilitate a successful transition out of the pandemic and to provide guidance to social workers, whether they are in micro, macro and mezzo roles in our profession.
WHO’S MOST AT RISK?
Although everyone can become infected with COVID-19, here are some factors that elevate the risk of severe infection for some people and not others. COVID- 19 can lead to the sudden loss of family and friends leaving love ones to grieve. Grievers (defined as persons who have experienced loss) are also among the African- American population, which have been identified as groups who are at greater risk among other racial/ ethnic groups. People within these communities also tend to have pre-existing conditions such as obesity, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia and substance use disorder which are associated with severe infection. Other groups that are also considered at higher- risk include people aged 65 and older and those who are pregnant.
British Medical Journal (BMJ 2022;376:e068993), reports an infection that is less severe, mild, and even without symptoms can activate new mental health disorders, and increase the severity of pre-existing mental health conditions.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is expected to continue indefinitely because new variants will emerge. Being up to date on vaccination, including receiving booster doses, continues to be the best way to avoid severe illness, hospitalization, death, as well as Long COVID.
Although vaccinated people can still experience a breakthrough infection, the vaccines greatly reduce the chances of severe illness. Taking your chances with perceived natural protection from having had COVID-19 infection is not recommended as the duration of this immunity is unknown, and does wane.
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL WORKERS
As social workers, it is our duty to empower and support our communities through advocacy and social justice. We are seen as community allies. As social workers, we are equipped with specialized skills and tools to provide cutting-edge knowledge to support our clients in informed decision-making about becoming vaccinated.
Recommendations about vaccines have been rapidly changing, which is an unintended consequence of innovative response to a pandemic. Since COVID-19 made its global impact, misinformation and disinformation have fueled vaccination hesitancy. As social workers, we play a unique and valuable role in providing accurate, science-based information about the vaccines.
This is why social workers have been part of the essential workforce throughout history in the face of natural disasters and public health crises. We are leaders, including in situations which are controversial or complex.
Ultimately, it is up to our clients to decide whether-they will receive the vaccination. They have the right to self-determination. Our role is to point them to accurate information and provide an opportunity to process this decision.
TAKE FAST ACTION
Connect to End COVID- 19 provides extensive offerings such as national webinars and, chapter- hosted trainings on deploying Motivational Interviewing and other modalities to support vaccine decision making (both with up to 5 free CEUs), and additional information from trusted sources to help better serve people in your community. Someone once said, “Empowered people, empower people.” Let’s continue to break barriers and “Connect to End COVID-19” together.