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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Vaccine Alarmism and the Fight to Vaccinate

What a strange state the world is in that the most anticipated event of the year is getting a needle in your arm. After a year of wearing masks, staying at home, and social distancing, an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine should be the most exciting event on anyone’s social calendar. It signals the beginning of the end for this pandemic-fueled, nightmare-inducing year. The distribution of the vaccine feels like it should be a joyous and hopeful occasion accompanied by people shouting from the rooftops and confetti raining from the sky. So what’s with all the hesitation?

Vaccine alarmism has been rolling out across the country about as fast as the vaccine itself (which, admittedly, is not very fast, but still happening at a growing rate). It goes beyond false claims on Facebook and conspiracy theories about how the government is using it to inject tracking chips into peoples’ arms. Vaccine alarmism is the overabundance of caution that leads to fear and hesitancy even among supporters of the vaccine. 

This rise in hesitancy about inoculation is frustrating to many health experts. The primary goal of a vaccine is to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are doing that remarkably well. White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about the vaccines on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying, “All three of them are really quite good, and people should take the one that’s most available to them.” 

Vaccines appear to be the end everyone has been begging for for the last year, yet a significant portion of the population still seems reluctant to get one. This begs the question of how this alarmism came about.

The lines between fact and fiction have been decidedly blurred over the last few years, but when it comes to the vaccine there are still undeniable facts. Currently, three vaccines have been authorized by the FDA for emergency use in the United States. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has a 95 percent efficacy with two doses. The Moderna vaccine has a 94.1 percent efficacy, also with two doses. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the most recently approved one, has a 72 percent overall efficacy that rises to 86 percent against severe infection. 

This is where the confusion begins to emerge. Is one better than the others? Does 72% efficacy mean I have a 28% chance of getting COVID? Should I wait to get a vaccine until I have access to one that has a higher efficacy? These are just a few of the questions Americans are contemplating. Though the answers are simple, they are getting lost in contradictory messaging. 

In the case of vaccines, the rate of efficacy is the measurement of how much receiving a dose lowers the risk of contracting COVID-19 if exposed to the virus. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding this terminology. People pay attention to the numbers attached to efficacy, looking at which ones are higher and not fully understanding that all the vaccines are just about equally successful at preventing severe infections.

When mulling over the possibility of getting a vaccine, some also point to the long list of side effects that, when put together, sound like the end of a commercial for any medication. In reality, those side effects are mostly mild. Some reluctance comes from rare findings, such as one of the vaccines triggering anaphylaxis. However, this only occurred in 11 of 18 million cases. Tales of severe side effects are not nearly as common as they may seem, and the truth in them stems from people who were allergic to a component of the vaccine or have a history of bad reactions to inoculation.

Much of the hesitancy comes from the fact that these vaccines are new and the production was rapid, but it is commendable that they already function so well in such a short time. Regrettably, this is scarcely mentioned in vaccine discussions compared with the time dedicated to potential drawbacks. There has been some jumbling of facts and numbers, but this does not paint the full picture of vaccine alarmism that the country is experiencing.

Public messaging regarding the vaccine has been disorganized and disappointing. A lot of this results from the ever-changing and evolving nature of science and research. The message changes as the science advances, leaving the public unsure about the capability of the vaccines and the freedom that comes with getting one. If there is still a possibility of spreading COVID-19 after being vaccinated, or if one still has to wear a mask and socially distance, people question whether there is a point in obtaining it at all. This is where the overabundance of caution from scientists and health experts can become harmful. The messaging isn’t matching up with how encouraging the findings really are. When experts continually broadcast their uncertainty, they downplay the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Distrust of authority has also been a problem when it comes to convincing the public to get the vaccine. The spread of misinformation has become commonplace over the last four years, and figures of authority have certainly contributed to that spread. This has been especially true in the last year, when with an abundance of free time people ran to the internet to read and share everything they could find, even if those sources had very little basis in reality. The pandemic and the response to it has been very politicized, causing Americans to only take their advice from certain sources and completely disregarding the advice of others. In a recent survey, 27 percent of adults who do not want to get a vaccine cited distrust of the government as the reason.

Skepticism is disproportionately higher in communities of color that have already endured the brunt of the pandemic. According to a recent poll, 34 percent of Black Americans said they wanted to wait and see what would happen as others got vaccinated before deciding whether they wanted would follow suit, compared to 22 percent of the total population.

Some of this mistrust stems from an ugly history between the medical field and communities of color. Black Americans are reminded of past instances when Black people were used and taken advantage of without their consent for medical experiments. The consequences and memory of this still linger today. Mistrust also comes from the racism that is inherent in every level of government and medicine. 14 percent of second-year med students believe Black people are less sensitive to pain and 25 percent of Black Americans live in communities with a small number of primary care doctors. In many Black and Brown communities, it is simply harder to find access to a vaccine, which is not a reassuring sign even to people who would like to get one. This comes on top of the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on people in Black and Brown communities.

Social media is also a hub for the transmission of disinformation. Twitter alone is enough to cause doubt in all but the most staunch vaccine supporters. Everyone has probably heard one story or another about someone’s friend’s aunt who had a terrible reaction to the vaccine or been directed to some website on what the government isn’t telling you about the vaccine. These stories usually only carry a grain of truth by the time they make their way through all the degrees of separation, and they spread skepticism in the process. 

It is also likely that the inherent uncertainty of the last year has led to broad public distrust of good things because let’s admit it, genuine good news has been hard to come by lately. While it seems like vaccine alarmism hasn’t affected a large enough population to make much of a difference at this point, it could be very detrimental to vaccine rollout and combatting the pandemic. 

The main objective of a vaccine is to prevent hospitalizations and death from disease, but another fundamental purpose is bringing about herd immunity so that this pandemic can come to an end. Herd immunity refers to the point where enough people have some type of immunity to the virus that it no longer spreads enough to cause harm. Skepticism around the vaccine could affect the time it takes to reach this point. Some people are refusing the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, citing its lower efficacy percentage and expressing concerns that since it is only one dose as opposed to two, it may be less potent. A CDC report from February revealed that only about 49 percent of adults intended to receive the vaccine. The level of immunization required for life to return to some semblance of normalcy won’t be possible if hesitancy and reluctance turn into outright refusal.

The complexities and repercussions of vaccine alarmism are far reaching, but they can be reversed. People who have been vaccinated can share their experiences with family and friends, doing their best to spread some truth and optimism to counter falsification. Local doctors and community leaders can speak up in support of the vaccines. When speaking about the vaccines, Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, said “the vice president matters, but it matters more that your barber got it.” It is important to see not just public figures be vaccinated, but also people you know and who can personally speak to you about it. Little by little, the benefits can shut out the fear. So pull out every hopeful and cheesy metaphor, the lights at the end of the tunnels, the rainbows after the rains, and get a needle stuck through your arm with a smile on your face.

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