Coronavirus vaccine: Some remain skeptical. What are health experts doing to convince them?

Health experts are confident it’s safe, effective

A coronavirus vaccine has been heralded as key to returning to some semblance of normal life, but public health experts will first need to convince most Americans to take it for it to be effective.

Many people both locally and across the U.S. have questions and concerns about the shot. Area doctors and public health leaders want to address those concerns because they are confident federally approved coronavirus vaccines are safe, effective and our best chance of ending the pandemic.

“The biggest tragedy would be that we would have lots and lots of doses of very effective vaccines and then people not getting it,” said Dr. Robert W. Frenck Jr., director of the Center for Vaccine Research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

This past week in Ohio, frontline health care workers, EMS workers and nursing homes residents began to receive the first of two doses of the coronavirus vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech. Shipments of approximately 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and another one made by Moderna are expected to arrive in Ohio by the end of January.

Demand will exceed supply initially. It could take months before the vaccines are available to the general public. But national polls indicate many Americans are hesitant to take it.

Experts estimate as many as 70% or more of Americans could need to get the coronavirus vaccine to reach herd immunity. Until herd immunity is reached, even those who have been vaccinated should continue wearing masks, social distancing and following other safety protocols because a chance exists they can spread the virus.

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Will people take the shot?

A national survey by Pew Research Center conducted late last month found that 60% of Americans say they would definitely or probably get the immunization if one were available today. About 39% say they definitely or probably won’t get it.

The majority of area residents who responded to an online Dayton Daily News survey — nearly 64% — said they plan to get a coronavirus vaccine. About 12% said they might get the vaccine and 24% said they won’t. A little over 200 local residents responded to our poll from Dec. 8 through Dec. 15.

Respondents who indicated they will get a vaccine as soon as it’s available said they would do so because they are afraid of contracting COVID, trust health experts and believe it is their civic duty to protect others.

Jennifer McElroy of Butler Twp. said she plans to get vaccinated and if the vaccine is approved in children, her kids will likely get the shot, too.

“(I) listened to Dr. Fauci talk about it and the experts that Gov. DeWine has on his meetings,” she said. “I don’t think that they would purposely steer us wrong. They’re a lot smarter than I am. I didn’t study any of this stuff … A lot of people don’t trust these people, but really, what does Dr. Fauci gain by telling people to get vaccinated? He has no vested interest other than to protect us.”

Those who said they don’t plan on getting the vaccine said the process for creating the immunization was too rushed, and some downplayed the severity of the virus compared to the relatively unknown side effects of the vaccine.

“I don’t trust how quickly it was pushed through,” a survey respondent from Dayton said. “There are no long-term studies and we have never used an (mRNA) vaccine in humans.”

Kasi Gardner, a Springfield Regional Medical Center nurse, received the coronavirus vaccine during Gov. Mike DeWine's COVID-19 press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
Kasi Gardner, a Springfield Regional Medical Center nurse, received the coronavirus vaccine during Gov. Mike DeWine's COVID-19 press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

What local experts say

Dr. Mamle Anim, chief medical officer at Dayton-based Five Rivers Health Centers, has spent a lot of time this year answering patients’ questions about a COVID vaccine. Pfizer, Moderna and the Federal Drug Administration have been transparent, Anim said, and released data that allowed her to form her own judgment: This vaccine is safe and it works.

Zach Jenkins, a clinical pharmacist with Premier Health and professor of pharmacy practice at Cedarville University who specializes in infectious disease, said the FDA would only approve a safe vaccine. He explained several factors made this unprecedented timeline for developing a vaccine possible: existing technology, government support, massive funding and an urgent need. Nearly every scientist in the field was working on a solution to this problem at the same time. And this type of vaccine have been studied for decades.

“Everybody focused on it and worked on it,” Anim said. “So yes, it’s been fast. But it’s not because corners were cut, it’s been fast because that’s all they did.”

Pfizer and Moderna did trials on over 30,000 participants — that’s thousands more than most clinical trials — and both found their vaccines to be approximately 95% effective with no serious side effects reported.

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Why some African Americans are especially skeptical

Several different groups of people distrust the coronavirus vaccine, explained Dr. Gary LeRoy, associate dean at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. That includes members of the existing anti-vaccine movement, people who believe the vaccine development was too rushed and Black Americans.

A deep-seated mistrust of health care and new treatments for some Black Americans stems from America’s long history of unethical medical experiments on minorities. That includes the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service. In that, the CDC caused the deaths of over 100 Black male participants by preventing them from receiving penicillin, the standard treatment for syphilis by 1947.

“So if you speak to a number of (Black) people, especially the older ones, about Tuskegee, they all know what you’re talking about,” LeRoy said. “All you have to do is say the word Tuskegee in relationship to medicine and medical trials and everybody knows what you’re talking about. So there’s that perception, not necessarily a valid perception, that somehow this vaccine may harm you if you are a person of color.”

Rev. Rockney Carter, the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Dayton, said he has heard mixed feelings from members of the Black community about the vaccine.

“African Americans are more cautious,” he said. “There’s a wait and see attitude.”

Carter cited the Tuskegee experiment as a significant influence.

He suggested local and national leaders such as Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and President-elect Joe Biden should take the coronavirus vaccine publicly to ease fears and set an example.

“I’m (telling people) talk to your doctors, do your own research, pray about it and if it’s something that you think could benefit you, right now, and possibly save your life, I would encourage you to think about taking it,” Carter said.

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What are the local health districts’ plans?

Health experts repeatedly said people should talk with their doctor about the new vaccine. However, some might need more convincing and an estimated quarter of Americans don’t have a primary care provider, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019.

ExploreWhat we know about plans to distribute the coronavirus vaccine locally

Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County has created an online survey to gauge the community’s attitudes about receiving a coronavirus vaccine. Director of Health Promotions Terra Williams said the responses will inform the department on how to target their efforts, what kind of misinformation they need to dispel and how they can address barriers to getting the vaccine.

The department is planning a series of recorded panel discussions with experts and community ambassadors that will begin later this month. The ambassadors will be members of the community with influence, such as clergy members and activists, particularly in the Black community.

“The most effective way to get the message out is for people to hear it from someone that they know and trust,” said Dan Suffoletto, public information supervisor at the health district. “As much as we can get to the people in the community who are trusted leaders in the community and that have a constituency, if you will, that’ll help us get the message out and be more effective.”

Kyle Trout, spokesman for the Clark County Combined Health District, said in a statement, “CCCHD is working closely with Black community members and leaders within the Black community to identify how to best reach the community.”

Laurie Fox, a spokeswoman for Greene County Public Health, said in a statement the department is awaiting a campaign to be rolled out by the Ohio Department of Health to assist with educating the public.

“We have a vaccine planning team in place and they will be working together to share messages out as soon as we can,” she said.

As the vaccine gets rolled out in phases to high-risk groups and eventually the general public, Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County plans to get the message out that it’s time to sign up for a shot. The department plans to set up free clinics in targeted neighborhoods containing many people who face barriers to getting the shot, such as lack of transportation or funds.

The cost of the coronavirus vaccine will be paid for by the federal government but providers such as retail pharmacies and doctor’s offices can charge an administration fee.

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