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Let’s Talk About COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy

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By Dr. George Terwilliger, Grace Cottage Hospital Chief Medical Officer

While declining from recent peak levels in Vermont, COVID-19 infection and death rates are surging in some states and in many countries around the globe. Vaccination is an important tool in fighting the pandemic. However, some people are still hesitant to get vaccinated. Recent polling by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that some states have hesitancy rates over 30%. Fortunately, Vermonters have far higher vaccine trust, being tied with Massachusetts for first in the nation, with a vaccination hesitancy rate of only 7%.

Why Are Some People Hesitant to Get the Vaccine?

  • Some mistrust science generally, and vaccines specifically. Some believe unfounded conspiracy theories, amplified by Facebook groups and other social media. It is difficult, though not impossible, to change these people’s minds with reason and evidence. The media tends to focus on vaccine imperfections and potential problems, even if these are unlikely to be significant. Controversy, real or imagined, sells.
  • Some understand the need for a COVID-19 vaccine but have concerns about side effects and safety.
  • Some worry the vaccines were rushed. Indeed, the vaccines were developed very rapidly, but it’s important to point out that the technology used to create these vaccines was not rushed. It’s been in the works for over 15 years. As a physician, I was trained to view any new medical development with a critical eye. After researching the technology and reviewing the data from vaccine trials, I am impressed by the very high levels of safety and effectiveness.
  • Some are hesitant because they intend to become “free-riders,” letting others get the vaccine while they rely on a hoped-for “herd immunity.” This is a poor strategy. COVID-19 is risky and often deadly. Being unvaccinated leaves you unnecessarily vulnerable.
  • Some young, healthy individuals believe that contracting COVID-19 will not be that bad, and that by getting COVID-19, they will gain a natural immunity. Unfortunately, this belief is misplaced. While it is true that the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 increases steadily with age, some younger people do get sick enough to be hospitalized or even die. Also, more and more survivors of COVID-19 are reporting long-term health consequences. Some research suggests that the immunity gained by being vaccinated is more complete and longer-lasting than that gained by contracting the illness itself. And, even if a young person does contract a case of COVID-19 that is mild without lasting effects, they risk infecting someone else who is more vulnerable.

I’ve heard that some health-care workers refuse to get vaccinated. Why?

Health-care workers may be heroic, but they are still human and can be swayed by the same fears and misinformation as everyone else. At Grace Cottage, over 93% of our entire staff have been vaccinated, a powerful testament to their focus on best medical practices and concern for the safety of their patients, family, friends, coworkers, and community. I have not heard of any hospital with a higher vaccination rate.

The Best Antidote: Kindness

What can you do if your co-worker, friend, or family member refuses to be vaccinated? We have all been victims of the worst pandemic in 100 years. We have all been afraid. It is natural that some of us will struggle to process the torrent of COVID-19 information. Try to practice kindness and resist the temptation to judge those who believe differently. We need to acknowledge that some vaccine fears are understandable. We need to address the fears with facts.

The Facts:

  • Rapid development did not result in risky vaccines. The “warp speed” of vaccine development was only possible because so many resources were poured into research. The first two approved vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, benefitted from decades of research just coming to fruition when the pandemic hit. This enabled scientists to quickly deploy the game-changing mRNA approach.
  • The vaccines are very, very safe. Yes, people commonly experience side-effects after vaccination: malaise, fatigue, headache, fever, and achiness for 1-2 days. These are brief and disappear completely. Serious side effects are very rare: allergic reactions and the literally one-in-a-million risk of blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
  • Recent CDC guidance indicates that COVID-19 vaccines are very safe during pregnancy, demonstrating no significant risks for mothers or babies. This is very fortunate because mothers are at substantial risk of severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted during pregnancy.
  • Many millions of adults and teens have received the vaccine without serious side effects. The risk of serious side effect from a COVID-19 vaccine is literally less than 1 in a million. By comparison, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is roughly 2-3%, meaning two or three out of every hundred people who become infected will die. Also, up to 30% of survivors may have chronic disability from it.

Unfounded Myths:

  • One myth says the vaccines affect fertility. This is completely unfounded and not biologically plausible.
  • Some people believe that underlying medical conditions make getting the vaccine risky. This is false. The vaccines have been studied and found safe in men and women of all age groups, different races, and many different medical conditions. In fact, those with increased susceptibility to getting sick from a COVID-19 infection (advanced age, immune problems, diabetes, heart, lung, and kidney disease diseases, hypertension, and pregnancy) are precisely the people who have the most to gain from getting vaccinated.
  • There are claims that the vaccine somehow causes contagious side effects. This is completely unfounded.
  • Some people believe that the vaccine contains microchips, allowing a person to be tracked. This is impossible and, frankly, ridiculous.

COVID-19 vaccine myths are contagious click-bait and big money-makers for those who create and post them on social media. These notions persist due to the panic they cause in the people who would be better served by relying on science and reason.

The Truth:

The evidence is very clear: Getting the vaccine is the best protection against COVID-19, preventing major health problems and even death. The vaccine has an incredible safety record in careful initial studies in tens of thousands of people over the past year and in millions of people vaccinated over the past 5 months.

The Future:

This summer and fall, mask and distancing rules will be relaxed in most places, made possible because of the large number of people getting vaccinated. The relaxation of rules will place those not vaccinated at greater risk because there will still be a substantial amount of virus circulating for another year or two. Remember: children under age 16 haven’t been vaccinated yet, and there are new, more contagious variants that could cause future surges.

COVID-19 is real, the vaccines are safe, and the time to protect us all is right now. And if you don’t get vaccinated, you may be required to wear a mask for a very long time.