By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Remember when your parents told you to stop reading comic books and do your homework? Well, now there’s a comic book that is your homework. It could literally save your life.
The Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) has released a comic book, titled “Handbook for Health Heroes,” that depicts children facing down fears about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The subtitle is: “Answers to your family’s questions about COVID-19 vaccines for kids.”
The comic is available online and will be distributed in paper copies to all schools in the Seattle School District with vaccination rates below 60%.
On its cover is a child wearing a mask with a Band-Aid on his arm, where he has apparently just been vaccinated. The child wears a red cape and is surrounded by floating balls with prongs on them—depictions of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
As the child adopts a pose with one arm flung up into the air, and another gripped at his side, vaguely reminiscent of a karate stance, a force field represented by a squiggly line cascades out around him.
It is from this shield that the viruses appear to be in full flight.
Still, the comic book is actually meant for families, despite its obvious appeal for kids.
“It’s meant to allow parents to start the conversation with their kids,” said Dr. Dwane Chappelle, executive director of DEEL.
The questions that are raised throughout the 12-page saga, in fact, touch upon many of the questions that researchers have found to be among the most pressing, many of them fueled by misinformation or lies spread on some television networks or social media.
For instance, a survey taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that 24% of Americans had heard that the vaccine can actually cause COVID-19. Of those, 10% believed the falsehood, while 14% were unsure.
In the comic book, this is the only one of nine questions that is depicted as being asked by an adult, and not a child.
A gray-haired woman with a Band-Aid on her arm and a little girl in a red cape (also with a Band-Aid) holding onto her back, asks in a bubble that fills up nearly half the picture, “CAN I GET COVID-19 FROM THE VACCINE?”
The answer is: “A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE HEARD THIS AND THE ANSWER IS ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
The heroes depicted in the comic book include mostly children, bravely asking questions or enduring the slight pain of a shot. But there are also researchers, holding test tubes, and families sorting out answers together.
And, of course, all these heroes depend on heroes in real life, such as Olymar Gallagher, a certified school nurse and former high school teacher, who has a master’s in public administration in emergency and disaster management.
Her superpower, she reveals in an interview, and later confirms in an email, is “caring.”
As she speaks on a video conference call, she is frequently called to give care to students.
“Excuse me,” she says at one point, “I have to give asthma medication.”
She disappears from the screen for a few moments and then is back.
The comic book, she says, will be part of the school’s and the district’s ongoing efforts to get kids vaccinated.
These have included vaccine and booster clinics held at her school, Bailey Gatzert. Another clinic is approaching.
“The Seattle School District has been lucky to work with medical providers like Othello Station Pharmacy, Seattle Visiting Nurses, and Safeway Pharmacy who are excellent at working with children. They are warm and comforting. They also speak many languages,” said Gallagher.
As a result, the vaccination rates of students in the school district are much higher than national averages. Nationally, only 28% of 5-11 years are vaccinated. In Seattle public schools, it is over 65%. For 12-17 years, the national average increases to 58%. But for the district, 85% of that age group is vaccinated.
Still, Gallagher expects a lot from the heroes in the comic book. She expects they will help communicate with parents and their kids that otherwise might have language barriers.
The comic is intended for an audience of families with kids who are between 5 through 11.
And experts say elementary school kids are enamored of superheroes.
So Gallagher expects it to help with families whose first language is not English.
DEEL is translating it into multiple languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, with one other yet to be determined.
Still, that’s not the only time when superheroes are needed—to leap in a single-bound tall buildings of linguistic and cultural differences.
The brave avengers of the “Handbook for Health Heroes” comic book will also do duty in more complex cases, according to Gallagher.
An immunocompromised child in her school contracted COVID-19 multiple times and grew “very, very upset,” she said. The parents were working full-time and had multiple children and it took months to convince them for the family to get vaccinated.
Her experience is not unique. Several surveys found that logistical problems are major factors preventing vaccination. Gallagher said the comic would help in such situations.
“I look forward to the comic distribution and to using it as another tool for having conversations about immunizations,” she said.
Chappelle is planning to use it to talk with his daughter.
For Bailey Gatzert, where most kids are of color, it helps that almost all the heroes in the comic are people of color.
Nationally, vaccine hesitancy is increasingly common among white Republicans. And national statistics show vaccine hesitancy is now almost equal among Latinos, Blacks, and whites, according to the African American Research Collaborative.
But in our region, according to Public Health—Seattle & King County, “In King County, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color.”
Chappelle was previously principal of Rainier Beach High School, where the graduation rate increased by 25% under his leadership.
He said, “Representation is important. Historically, culturally-specific information about vaccines has not been widely available. We know that communities of color continue to be more impacted by COVID-19 but also have been the most hesitant to get vaccinated. When it comes down to the ethnicity of the different characters in the comic, we wanted to create a resource that our families of color could relate to and see themselves in as they consider their decisions about the COVID-19 vaccination for their families.”
A goal for “Handbook for Health Heroes” is not only to save lives, but to allow kids to continue to remain at school.
“For us at the DEEL, we want to support our families with the culturally and linguistically accessible information about the COVID-19 vaccine to help our kids stay safe and healthy and make sure they’re able to learn in person with their peers,” said Chappelle.
For Gallagher, the comic is part of what she calls a “monumental” amount of support she’s gotten.
DEEL has provided or facilitated take-home activity kits, nearly $3 million to childcare workers for their work during the pandemic, $100,000 in grants to students for projects to address hate and discrimination, as well as vaccine education and clinics at many schools.
Gallagher is also grateful for logistical support from the Seattle School District during the pandemic.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life. And there are definitely days when I want to throw in the towel, but the people have been massively supportive, and the team—I’ll go to Mars with this team, and I have no idea how to get there.”
As she leaves the screen again to attend to another child, the background shows a plain nurse’s office. When she returns, she addresses some of the criticism that inevitably appears on social media.
“So there’s lots of work to be done, but I think it’s easy to criticize and it’s much harder to do. I mean you can criticize all day long, but we’re on a train that sometimes feels like it’s falling apart and we’re trying to repair it as it’s moving and it’s unprecedented,” she said.
Time for some more heroes.
To view the comic book online, go to: education.seattle.gov/handbook-for-health-heroes.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.