dr. kathryn bass

Vaccine Hesitancy is a Threat to Overcoming the Pandemic

May 27, 2021

It’s been encouraging to see the number of COVID-19 vaccinated people steadily increasing in Erie County over the last few months. New York State Department of Health data show that, as of May 21, more than 1.2 million doses have now been administered throughout the eight-county region, making 556,000-plus Western New Yorkers now classified as “fully vaccinated,” while another 100,000 have received their first dose. In addition, the average number of regional cases has dropped below 150 in recent weeks (following the spike of more than 650 weekly cases in early spring), and daily death rates are now in the single digits. This is in line with a national trend, as CDC Director Rochelle Walensky reported on May 21 that for the first time since last June, daily COVID-19 cases have dropped below 30,000.

While all of this is encouraging, there are still segments of our population which remain at a higher risk of illness, and most of them are doing so despite preventable circumstances.

Thus far in 2021, Buffalo residents are dying at a considerably higher rate than other Erie County residents, according to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. The disparity is alarming, as 43% of April’s deaths were found among Buffalo city dwellers — despite the fact that they only comprise 22% of the county’s population. Public health officials initially believed that access was the chief factor for the inequity, as the suburbs had more doses and fewer transportation barriers.

However, even as pop-up health clinics and other initiatives have removed many access barriers, vaccine hesitancy still exists among some city residents, causing needless illness and death among segments of our community. Experts explain that some minority groups have a general distrust of government, health care workers and people in a position of authority. Ironically, social media’s “viral” videos have also caused these populations undue harm, thanks to bogus claims of the vaccine containing harmful metal or magnetic properties.

Yet, we’re also seeing vaccine hesitancy in more rural parts of our nation, with data showing reluctance rates are actually higher than those of urban counties – despite the fact that rustic locales contain predominantly Caucasian populations. Indeed, a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey showed that 60% of those who expressed some degree of hesitancy were white. Moreover, four out of five counties with hesitancy rates above the national average had mostly white residents, and a March Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealed about 20% of rural residents said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, compared with 10% of urban residents.

As one would expect, access has been a contributing factor to rural residents’ low immunization rates. However, this has been compounded by the added health risks found in rural communities, which have higher proportions of residents who lack health insurance, live with comorbidities or disabilities, are age 65 of older, and have limited access to health care / intensive care facilities.

Whether rural or urban, the most common reluctance response we hear is that people want to wait to see how others react in the longer term. They think the vaccine was rushed – a claim that’s not at all true. There are 20 years of research that resulted in this vaccine’s process and discovery. Its clinical trials included millions of patients, globally, with stringent oversight from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and many international regulatory bodies. Any assertions that it has not been vetted properly are false. The volume of data and analysis have been very standard.

The media also hasn’t helped, as it made far too large an issue of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s extremely unlikely blood-clot side effect. It’s literally a one-in-a-million chance; you’re three times more likely to be struck by lightning. Taking that vaccine is a no brainer from a public health perspective — and if you’re still worried about that particular vaccine, you can always choose one of the other two (Pfizer or Moderna).

Of course, as a pediatric surgeon, we’re routinely asked about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for women, especially those who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant. Not only is it safe, but the CDC recommends that they receive it because pregnant people are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Similarly, we’ve watched the FDA and CDC steadily endorse its safety and efficacy within children, with those ages 12 and up now authorized to receive it. In fact, 600,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 15 have already received the Pfizer vaccine. Similar assurances have also been given to women who are breastfeeding.

It’s been encouraging to see the many recent celebrity endorsements and public health campaigns, such as the Spike Lee-featured pro-vaccine ad, sponsored by Uber, which is offering free rides to vaccine appointments. From Dolly Parton to the Dalai Lama, famous figures around the world are lending their notoriety to help convince those who have concerns. New York State’s Department of Health also has a strong “Roll Up Your Sleeves” campaign, designed to reach those who remain indecisive, especially people of color.

I sincerely hope they’re effective, because if we are to overcome the pandemic as a nation and a global society, vaccination will be the key to establishing the required levels of immunity. I got vaccinated for my family, for my patients. Who are you most important to? Will you take the vaccine for them? They are counting on you.