Fighting Misinformation: How Doctors Respond to Vaccine Hesitancy

Experts say an “infodemic” contributes to vaccine wariness 

Beneath a billboard for the San Diego health agency Sharp, a sign outside a barbershop invites passersby to call up for appointments while a stay-at-home order for Covid-19 has closed most salons in California. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

(CN) — For people who anxiously awaited the arrival of a vaccine preventing Covid-19, perhaps the hardest part is waiting for an appointment to become available. 

Lagging supply has slowed the first month of distribution. Even at a million shots administered per day, the Biden administration’s target, the wait for many will be months long. 

But plenty of people who are eligible to receive the vaccine seem to be planning to wait even longer or skip the vaccine altogether.

Pew survey last month found that 60% of people definitely or probably will get a vaccine for Covid-19, up from just 51% in September. Most survey categories showed people are now more likely to get a vaccine, indicating comfort is increasing. 

Still, 21% of U.S. adults don’t plan to get vaccinated and said they are “pretty certain” more information will not change their minds. 

“The general public has one very important question” about the vaccine, said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

“I think they believe it’s effective,” Dr. Benjamin said. “But the real question is: Is it safe? And how could we have done this so fast?” 

Multiple health care professionals agreed that the timing of Covid-19 vaccine development is the most common question they hear from patients. 

There are several reasons the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed was able to put out a vaccine last year in record time, Dr. Benjamin explained. 

Part of the reason is that we had a head start. 

Researchers began working in 2003 on a vaccine for the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s — a virus now known as SARS-CoV-1. The virus the planet is up against right now is SARS-CoV-2.  

Because the earlier virus is a relative of the novel coronavirus, researchers were able to lean on studies conducted years ago, at least during the early stages of vaccine development, explained Dr. Benjamin. 

“We did the science and the research just as we’ve always done,” he said. There were no meaningful changes to timing, population size or the way study participants were educated about the process. 

What actually sped up the process, Dr. Benjamin explained, was the federal government pouring money into a usually slow-going and unprofitable process. 

Companies developing the vaccine were also allowed to complete bureaucratic stages simultaneously, so researchers could spend their time instead “focusing like a laser on the science.” 

Explaining that background to patients, most doctors find, helps to ease concerns. But outside of the doctor’s office, social media can play a role in spreading information, and often misinformation, about the vaccine. 

In the first months of the pandemic, for example, the bizarre theory arose that 5G technology used by mobile phones was somehow linked to the coronavirus. It was completely false but gained surprising traction on the internet and was even mentioned in a (now-deleted) newspaper article in Belgium. 

Researchers from George Washington University assessed 2,000 Twitter accounts to study the “infodemic” occurring alongside the global pandemic. 

Vaccine opponents shared the greatest proportion of unreliable facts, making up 35% of the content, the researchers found. Accounts often shared conspiracy theories, rumors and scams

Still, the researchers cautioned against assuming that vaccine misinformation primarily comes from outright lies shared by bots or anti-vaxxers. Sometimes, false claims are even shared by well-meaning, pro-vaccine sources.

Subtle misunderstandings can be shared even more broadly than extreme views or conspiracy theories, the researchers note. The most prominent conversation topic among the Twitter accounts studied was what researchers called “disease and vaccine narratives,” where users compared Covid-19 to other diseases, like the flu. 

Those comparisons can manipulate people’s understanding of how serious Covid-19 really is, which does not bode well for convincing vaccine holdouts that they need protection. 

“We see a lot of people putting their head in the sand, and doing what I call the ostrich maneuver,” said Dr. Robert Hopkins, who chairs the National Vaccine Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

Besides talking with doctors directly, Hopkins and other experts say it’s crucial to partner with well-respected community members who can drive home the severity of the pandemic and the necessity of getting as many people vaccinated as possible.  

“One-on-one engagement with those that are hesitant to be vaccinated, by trusted local voices, can be absolutely critical,” Dr. Hopkins said. 

Dr. Hopkins has been holding small group meetings, lasting 30 minutes or so, to talk through concerns — a practice that “has been tremendously effective in getting people vaccinated.” 

“Personal touch makes a big difference,” Dr. Hopkins said. 

Historical precedent argues that trusted and adored celebrities can make a difference, too. 

A classic example was in 1956 when Elvis Presley received a dose of polio vaccine on the set of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” 

Elvis Presley receives the polio vaccination in 1956. (Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, via Courthouse News)

Elvis was a “useful messenger,” said Charles Stoecker, associate professor at Tulane University’s Department of Health Policy and Management. 

“You’ve got the king of rock and roll up there getting vaccinated,” Stoecker said. 

The stunt was at least somewhat effective at mobilizing teenagers, who eventually led the charge to increase vaccination rates. 

Finding figures to take up that charge could still work in 2021. Stoecker mentioned watching a TV interview with a man who said he would not get the vaccine until President Obama received one. Another celebrity Stoecker posited is Dolly Parton, who donated $1 million to vaccine research. 

For now, low supply and tricky logistics remain the major barriers to widespread vaccination. But as more supply becomes available, solutions to fight misinformation — by way of televised celebrity vaccinations, community groups or otherwise — may be all the more important in slowing the spread of Covid-19.

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