Now that we are rolling out two COVID-19 vaccines that actually work, the next big hurdle will be to get enough people to take them so we can get the disease under control.
You would think that would be easy, given our desperation to return to normal life. But health experts say we need to get upwards of 70% of our citizens vaccinated if we are going achieve the necessary herd immunity, and various polls indicate it’s going to be difficult to achieve that goal.
A Pew Research Center survey of over 12,000 Americans in late November found that nearly 40% said they would “definitely” or “probably” not get the COVID-19 vaccination. While that’s an improvement from 50% in September, it’s hardly reassuring to public health professionals.
“COVID-19 is the first disease to have an anti-vaccine movement before it had a vaccine,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017. Part of this is the speed with which the vaccine was developed and the politicizing of the science involved.
Until the COVID-19 vaccines were developed in just eight months, the record for a new vaccine was three years for mumps. That has raised concerns that corners were cut in development and that testing for problems was rushed. The two vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, a shorter test and review process than most drugs undergo.
Approval moved even more quickly due to alleged pressure from the Trump administration. FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn was reportedly told by Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to either approve the Pfizer vaccine immediately or start looking for another job. Trump chimed in with a tweet, “Stop playing games and start saving lives!!!”
A House subcommittee is currently investigating reports Trump political appointees at the CDC tried to block or change more than a dozen reports that detailed scientific findings about the spread of the coronvirus.
In one instance cited by investigators, a study on the spread of the virus by children was blocked at the time Trump was pushing hard to resume school in the fall. “Whenever messaging clashed with the science, the message always won,” said one former CDC official. Trump administration officials have denied the claims, but are refusing to turn over documents requested by the subcommittee.
Blacks, among those who have suffered the most during the pandemic, are said to be reluctant to get the vaccination because of a long history of bad experiences with the government when it comes to medical care. The best known example is the notorious Tuskegee Experiment, where 600 black men were injected unknowingly with syphilis to see how they would react. They were told they were getting free medical care.
Then there are esoteric concerns like the use of pork-derived gelatin, a widely used stabilizer to ensure vaccines remain safe and effective during storage and transport. This is a touchy issue for orthodox Jews and Muslims, who ban the consumption of pork products. Pfizer and Moderna insist porcine gelatin isn’t used in their vaccines, but you can bet anti-vaxxers will raise the issue.
Early users of the vaccines are reporting side effects like headaches, fatigue and a rise in temperature. People with severe allergies are being advised to avoid the shots, and at least one person fainted after getting hers. (This apparently has happened to the woman in the past.)
The rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic has created a data deficit in which the demand for information about the topic is high, but the supply of credible information is low. Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy nuts are more than willing to fill the information gap, aided and abetted by the internet.
Facebook is making an effort to stop the flow, but it’s almost impossible to clamp down on all of the anti-vaxx pages and groups on the site. It recently booted off “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” (the name itself claims something that doesn’t exist), which had 200,000 followers.
The site recently teamed up with QAnon, which believes Trump is fighting a deep state cabal of liberal pedophiles who are trying to take over the world. COVID-19 is just another element of the plan. “Stop” featured an American flag over “WWG1WGA,” QAnon’s rallying cry that stands for “Where We Go 1, We Go All.”
Then there are outfits like GreenMedInfo, which helped spread the bogus claim that vaccinations cause autism. In its view, the FDA knows the COVID-19 vaccination “may cause a wide range of life-threatening side effects, including death.”
With online platforms like Facebook and YouTube cracking down on misinformation, some anti-vaxx activists are pivoting to sparsely-attended real-world events and looking to local news outlets to amplify their message, a technique known as “information laundering.”
“This is the problem of information laundering,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies media manipulation. “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who otherwise would not be inclined to believe it, might be willing to look at as an issue with two sides.”
Local television news is especially useful in this effort, the place where most people get their local news. After blood in the streets, TV news likes nothing better than a controversy that can be portrayed in simplistic, black-and-white terms. There’s no better attention getter than moms dragging their children to a demonstration protesting vaccinations.
The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to fight this misinformation with a $250 million marketing campaign. But there are suspicions the administration is trying to politicize the effort, and officials have yet to roll out the target message. At least 15 states got tired of waiting and have launched their own campaigns.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has urged Americans to “hit the reset button” on skepticism of the approved vaccinations, stressing that the independent nature of the approval process and the strong safety measures should give the public confidence.
“I think all reasonable people—if they had the chance to put the noise aside and disregard all those terrible conspiracy theories—would look at this and say: I want this for my family, I want it for myself,” he said. “People are dying right now; how could you possibly say let’s wait and see if that might mean some terrible tragedy is going to befall.”
I’m onboard. I’m old enough to have had measles, mumps and chicken pox because there were no vaccinates available to prevent them. I still have a vivid memory of my parents freaking out when my younger brother showed early symptoms of polio—fortunately, it was a false alarm.
So if you’re ahead of me in the vaccination line and decide to pass, let me know. I’ll be glad to take your place because I have no desire to spend the last couple of weeks of my life with a ventilator jammed down my throat.