COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation Triggers Hesitancy

People wait in line outside of the Javits Center to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Jahlil Rush)

Article by M’Niyah Lynn | Apr. 20, 2021 

Brislenny Alvarez gets vaccinated for the flu every year and is diabetic, which is associated with worse outcomes from COVID-19. So getting vaccinated against the virus was an easy choice for the 21-year-old, who received her second Pfizer shot at the end of March.

“I’ve heard misinformation on how the vaccine makes women infertile and on how it’s the government’s way of putting tracking devices in us,” Alvarez said. “It’s ridiculous, but a lot of people are gullible. Why not get vaccinated for the biggest pandemic right now for things to maybe go back to normal or a version of normal?”

Brislenny Alvarez decided to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in the hopes that she’s one step closer to normalcy. (Photo provided by Brislenny Alvarez)

Alvarez is Black and Hispanic and lives in the Bronx, where both of these communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But unlike Alvarez, many people in predominantly minority neighborhoods are being swayed by vaccine misinformation, which has hurt trust in the vaccines and created even more challenges in the return to normalcy. Government, science and health professionals are mobilizing to combat misinformation and hesitancy at the local level, but it has become a powerful force they are so far failing to contain.

The CDC and FDA recently announced in a joint statement that administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be paused, which could further complicate efforts by scientists and the government to convince the public to get vaccinated. The pause was out of an “abundance of caution” due to extremely rare reported cases of a severe type of blood clot. The CDC is investigating these cases for a potential link to the vaccine.

As of April 7, the New York City Department of Health reported that the city’s vaccination rate for adults that have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is 37 percent. Of those adults, approximately 20 percent of Blacks and 13 percent of Latinos have gotten a dose compared to 36 percent of Whites. East Harlem and the South Bronx have seen some of the city’s lowest vaccination rates, and these racial disparities may be reflective of the skeptical attitudes within these communities.

East Harlem’s Black and Hispanic community are less vaccinated than some White neighborhoods. (Photo by M’Niyah Lynn)

In East Harlem, 42 percent of adults have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from the NYC Health Department’s COVID-19 tracker from April 15. In the South Bronx zip code that includes Concourse and Melrose, 41 percent of adults are partially vaccinated. This is in stark contrast to Manhattan’s West Village, where 60 percent of adults are partially vaccinated.

According to American Community Survey data, the population in East Harlem is approximately 45.9 percent  Hispanic/Latino and 30.6 percent Black. Meanwhile, the West Village is approximately 80 percent White.

A study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February found that people tend to believe myths or false information if they are reinforced through constant exposure on social media. 

One piece of misinformation that has spread is the idea that the COVID-19 vaccine means being injected with the virus itself. Miriam Wynder, a Black assistant city highway repairer for the NYC Department of Transportation, is a firm believer that the government and health professionals are not sharing all of the “real” information about the vaccine. 

“Black people are subjected to molecular manipulation” she said. “It’s germ warfare that’s going on to try to decrease the population and elevate the economy.”

Wynder, who frequently brings her daughter Jordan to the Bronx to visit Jordan’s godmother, added that she is suspicious of the vaccines because they were produced so quickly.

“Typically, it takes 5 to 7 years for them to develop a real vaccine with studies and side effects, but it’s only been a year since the pandemic started and we already have three,” she said.

This is a common talking point in anti-vaccine messaging, though no corners were cut in the vaccines’ rigorous testing process.

Some conspiracy theorists like David Icke allege that the vaccine makes women infertile, a claim which has been debunked. However, the misinformation has continued to be circulated this year

Some health experts believe  the Trump administration’s attacks on the scientific community helped give rise to the wave of misinformation we are seeing. New York University Emerita Professor of Biology Carol Reiss thinks that President Trump downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19.

“He found ways of undermining the messaging sent by the public health authorities,” she said.

Reiss also noted that Trump put politics ahead of science when he “muzzled” the CDC and FDA. She referred specifically to Trump’s delay in issuing a proposed global travel advisory by the CDC early in the pandemic. Reiss said the trust issues between the White House and these other organizations contributed to a weak framework that then trickled down to the state and city level. Messages became mixed and contradictory.

Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, agrees that Trump’s response and attitude towards the pandemic has added to hesitancy. 

“People view these as ‘Trump vaccines,’ which, of course, is not the case. I mean, they were made by scientists who would have been responsible for doing this, whether they had been in a Republican or a Democratic administration,” he said.

Dr. Paloma Marin-Nevarez is a first-year Emergency Medicine resident at University of California San Francisco Fresno. Early in the pandemic, she noted, there was a lot of misinformation about the therapies available to treat COVID-19, such as the use of hydroxychloroquine. She believes it’s tempting for people to believe misinformation when they are trying to cope with stressful times.

(Photo provided by Marin-Nevarez)

“Overall, by not protecting their people, the government put the people in a precarious position to choose between their health and being able to pay their bills, so inevitably this tension can make people more susceptible to not believing what the government says,” she said.

Although some leaders in health have tried to debunk certain claims, myths and conspiracy theories still persist. Not only is misinformation an issue on its own, but it adds to the many reasons that some already had for not wanting to get vaccinated.

Adonia Escalona, 20, frequently visits Harlem to see friends and go to Central Park. She has decided not to get vaccinated because she said the vaccine doesn’t “guarantee” that she will be protected against the virus or the new strains.

“My mom was pissed that my friend tried to convince me to get vaccinated,” she said. Escalona also said her mom believes that the government is trying to make the vaccine “as mandatory as possible,” which she believes is a violation of human rights.

Adonia Escalona refuses to get the vaccine and rejects the idea of a vaccine mandate. (Photo provided by Adonia Escalona)

The concept of herd immunity, the idea that a virus will run out of infectable hosts if a certain proportion of the population builds immunity through infection or vaccination, is also a reason why people are declining COVID-19 vaccinations, although vaccines have been proven to significantly speed up herd immunity. Nevertheless, Lipkin and some other professionals are unsure if herd immunity is possible because of the other strains of coronavirus popping up. 

“If you’ve been vaccinated, there’s a possibility that you can be reinfected. So that’s a problem. And the second issue is that this virus has already moved into wildlife and domestic animals,” he said. 

Vaccine hesitancy has expanded to other groups of people as well. Although the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that the number of U.S. adults who want to get vaccinated “as soon as possible” increased from December to January among Blacks and Hispanics, not much has shifted for Republicans, which are largely composed of rural residents. Enthusiasm for the vaccine increased for Democrats, but 33% of Republicans say they will “definitely not get the vaccine or will get it only if required to do so for work, school or other activities.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that rural America tends to be predominantly White, while urban areas tend to be more racially diverse. 

Health experts and professionals continue to emphasize the positive effects of getting vaccinated. The CDC touts protecting loved ones from getting sick and making you less likely to be infected with the virus among other things.

The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines, which have run into more hurdles than the mRNA vaccines Pfizer and Moderna due to potential links to rare cases of blood clots, have nonetheless been shown to keep people “out of the ICU 100 percent,” Reiss said. 

The government has worked to address misinformation. Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo continues to hold press briefings and COVID-19 updates where he focuses on the data available each day, and President Biden has participated in COVID-19 response team briefings with White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC.

Despite the federal and local governments’ actions, some still think more has to be done. Alvarez advised the government to give people information about what the vaccine specifically does and contains in simpler terms “so people don’t think it’s a plot against them,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Marin-Nevarez said grassroots efforts within each community are crucial to build trust. She recommended that community leaders answer the questions of communities and ensure informational materials are tailored to language needs.

Health professionals have also made an effort to combat misinformation in the hopes of providing confidence in the vaccines.

“It’s going to take a while I think until confidence in science is restored to where it was five years ago. But that being said, I have confidence in vaccines that were prepared,” Lipkin said.

He helped recruit employees to participate in Columbia University’s public service announcements that are part of New York’s “Roll Up Your Sleeves” initiative. The videos feature people from the Latinx and Black communities, Orthodox Jews, White policemen and other demographics that have been reluctant to get vaccinated.

Marin-Nevarez combats misinformation by trying to create a dialogue with her patients who  express hesitancy. 

Paloma Marin-Nevarez uses her position as an emergency medicine resident to combat misinformation. (Photo provided by Marin-Nevarez)

“Interestingly, people who believe misinformation actually have excellent questions that no one has taken the time to thoroughly answer; science often leaves more questions than answers,” she said. 

Additionally, Marin-Nevarez said she wants her patients to be mindful of where they get their information. 

“Reminding them of this fact sometimes helps them to at least question the sources of their information and to think critically about the intentions of those who are providing them with false information,” she said.

Marin-Nevarez said healthcare workers should get vaccinated if they are asking others to. For example, at Harlem Hospital, known for providing care to the Black community, some workers were initially reluctant to get vaccinated. This has changed because more staff have felt comfortable getting vaccinated as time has passed.

For many scientists, one thing getting lost in the narrative about the safety of the vaccines is how stunningly effective they are even compared to other, more commonly-accepted vaccines. Recent studies have found that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of the flu illness by 40 to 60 percent, the CDC said. On the other hand, Moderna’s vaccine was said to be 94.1 percent effective at preventing illness after two doses during clinical trials.

“I think you’re going to be very impressed with what [scientists] have been able to achieve. It’s amazing. Pfizer and Moderna are really very, very good,” Lipkin said.