Our country is seventeen months into a pandemic that we have an effective vaccine for, and yet, COVID-19 cases are still rising at an alarming rate. Currently, this dramatic acceleration in cases is evident in several states. Furthermore, these areas with high numbers of COVID-19 case rates are associated with low vaccination rates.
These unfortunate statistics lead one to reflect on the multitude of reasons that Americans are abstaining from vaccination. First, to put it bluntly, there are many Americans who do not trust vaccines. Some believe that the vaccines were developed too quickly. Others do not trust the institutions that developed the vaccines. People are skeptical of the motives of the government or the health care system in creating these vaccines. Many people buy into various conspiracy theories surrounding these institutions.
Other people are hesitant to get vaccinated due to side effects. Some of these side effects are to be expected, such as fatigue and low-grade fever, and some are unproven effects that some people anticipate despite any associated evidence, such as infertility.
Still others are choosing not to become vaccinated because they do not see COVID as a real threat. Despite the morbidity and mortality rates, they still envision COVID like other viruses, such as influenza.
So, the question becomes, if the COVID case rate is inversely proportional to an area’s vaccination rate, how can we improve vaccination rates? I believe the answer to this is by increasing efforts to educate the public on the safety of these vaccines, both on a large and small scale.
On a national level, we need a large-scale education campaign to improve public awareness. I believe this should be in the form of a large media campaign from the CDC. There could be public service announcements that dispel common myths like: “we don’t know what is in these vaccines.” It could be clearly explained what is in each vaccine. Science principles of how the vaccines work could be described in a basic way to teach Americans about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines.
The campaign could focus on key facts. It would clearly delineate that the mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus. People also could be reassured that the vaccines do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. It should also be stated that researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades.
Next, politicians from both the right and the left sides need to come to the middle to assure the public that the vaccines are safe. Blue states and red states should not have vastly different vaccination rates. The vaccine should not be seen as a creation of “the liberals,” when the Trump administration spent billions to bankroll Operation Warp Speed. The COVID virus is not preferential to a certain political party, and neither should the vaccine be.
On a personal level, physicians need to speak with their patients on the vaccine’s safety at every appointment. Sharing anecdotes such as, “I gave my teenagers the vaccine” or “I didn’t have any major side effects” can be helpful for anxious patients. Five extra minutes of patient education at an encounter may make the difference in an entire family getting vaccinated.
Education is the key to improving vaccination rates, and hence, moving past the pandemic. People need to believe that the vaccines are safe and effective to reduce future waves of COVID-19.
Sarah C. Smith is a family physician.
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