Early in the vaccination effort this winter, many Americans were desperate to get their COVID-19 shots as they either struggled to find available appointments or patiently waited for their turn in line.
As more doses became available in the spring, the United States ramped up the vaccinations with a peak of 4.4 million shots on April 8.
But the urgency earlier this year to get shots into arms is slowing down significantly. Last week, the country averaged just 400,000 shots a day, raising concerns from public health officials who are trying to remind people that the COVID-19 pandemic still isn’t over.
While there was hesitancy for some early in the process, there now appears to be an outright disinformation campaign against the vaccine on social media and within some local communities.
“The state has been anticipating hesitancy for a while,” said state Rep. Tim O’Neal, who is a member of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “I think there’s always going to be a contingent – I think it’s a relatively small contingent – that will never trust the vaccine and will never get it. That’s OK. That’s their personal choice.”
More concerning, however, is the conspiracy theories and disinformation that is bubbling up about the vaccine, prompting the Biden administration to change its approach recently as it tries to educate the unvaccinated to protect themselves from the virus.
“Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Thursday. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
That has been the case locally after signs began popping up a few months ago in Greene County announcing that “The Vaccine Will Kill You!” The professionally made yard signs began multiplying recently and are now in front of several homes along a stretch of Route 19 a few miles north of Waynesburg. One resident who was approached by a reporter last week to discuss the sign declined to comment, except to say she will never get the vaccine.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert in Pittsburgh and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, thinks some people have “shut their minds off” to science.
“I think there will be some segment of the population that will be adamantly against the vaccine no matter what the evidence will show,” Adalja said. “These people are probably out of reach because they are beyond rational thought of reason and science.”
There are others, however, who are hesitant to get the vaccine because they are worried about possible side effects, are waiting to see how others react to it or they want to see it receives full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, Adalja said.
There have been some adverse reactions from people who have received the vaccine, most notably three people who died from blood clots that were tied to the J&J vaccine, prompting federal regulators to temporarily pause administering that particular brand. But Adalja said the benefits from the vaccine far outweigh the risks associated with it, which are low compared to the effects from the virus itself.
“I have run into a brick wall with some people. ... I’ve also been able to talk to other people while walking them through the data,” he said.
But he was disappointed to hear about the signs on Route 19 in Greene County spreading disinformation, which could lead to an uptick in infections in the area if people remain unprotected from the virus. Less than 13,000 people in Greene County are fully vaccinated – about 40% of its eligible population – putting it near the bottom of the list in the state, according to state Department of Health statistics.
“Signs like that are false, spreading lies and defaming the vaccine companies,” Adalja said. “There’s no place for that.”
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, who received the vaccine last summer as part of Pfizer’s clinical trial, isn’t surprised by the reaction from some and thinks the hyperpartisan mood of the country has contributed to the problem. He remembers being called a “sheep” by some on Facebook last fall after first announcing he was part of the clinical trial.
“What I’ve seen locally and nationally, we had a heated presidential race last year and we were in the middle of a pandemic, and it became politicized,” Maggi said. “You had these two forces come together and it really made it difficult.”
He continues to return to Columbus, Ohio, for regular checkups while remaining in the clinical trial, and he is still comfortable with his decision to get the vaccine. He hasn’t had any troubling side effects and believes the Pfizer vaccine has kept him safe from the virus.
“I believed in the trial, I felt comfortable, I researched it and I don’t have any regrets,” Maggi said. “You’ve got to trust something, and I happen to trust the medical professionals and the scientists.”
The conversation between patients and their doctors can change people’s minds, although Dr. Ben Kleifgen is cautious about how he approaches the subject with patients. Kleifgen, a pediatrician at Washington Pediatrics in the Washington Health System, speaks to many parents about it, letting them know the options for children 12 and older who are currently eligible to receive the vaccine. He’s also talking to parents with children younger than 12, explaining that the vaccine will likely soon be available in phases to those different age groups.
“I feel like a lot of people have already made up their mind. It runs the gamut. But it does seem to be polarizing,” he said.
“I try to do a lot of listening. ‘Why do you feel that way? What have you heard?’ Typically, there are a few reasons people raise. I try to listen without feeling like I’m lecturing,” Kleifgen added.
One of the biggest concerns is that the vaccine was rushed into production, but Kleifgen points out that there’s never before been a worldwide effort with seemingly unlimited resources to develop one so quickly. He added that his discussions with children and their parents is a “low pressure sale” since his office doesn’t currently offer the vaccine, although that could eventually change.
“Most people have questions, and I respect that. I try to get to the specific concerns before firing off some facts and figures at them,” Kleifgen said. “I’m trying to leverage the relationship as their pediatrician. ‘Hopefully I’m someone you trust. I have your kid’s best interest in mind.’ I trust the data.”
That’s something O’Neal, the state representative on the vaccine task force, has been particularly proud of as WHS has led the way in the vaccination effort in Washington County.
“They’ve played a significant role to put medical professionals at the front of this,” said O’Neal, R-North Strabane. “The trust for the government just isn’t there.”
But O’Neal and others have growing concerns about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people. He noted that the task force has found that more than 95% of the most serious illnesses and deaths from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania are occurring in people who still have not been vaccinated. O’Neal said the task force is trying to focus its resources on educating ethnic minorities and people living in rural communities, where there is the greatest mistrust of the vaccine.
“I definitely wouldn’t describe it as a brick wall,” O’Neal said of the vaccination progress. “There are many people who haven’t got it for a variety of reasons.”
But with three vaccines readily available, it’s ultimately up to individuals to protect themselves and other in their community, said Adalja, the infectious disease expert in Pittsburgh.
“The virus is completely in the hands of people who live in (the community),” Adalja said. “Any future deaths are completely self-inflicted.”