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Hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s what health officials say
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Since March 25, all Georgians ages 16 and up are eligible to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Kia Williams, 19, an Athens resident who attends the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, is unsure about when she’ll get her first dose of the vaccine. Or if she ever will. 

Williams said she’s not against vaccines or science, but she is hesitant about how she will feel if she takes a dose of the vaccine.

“You hear a lot about the side effects that you can get from taking one of these (doses),” she said. “I know these things can make us better and stop COVID and I want to trust the doctors, but I’m scared.”

According to Nancy Nydam, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health in an interview with The Times on March 26, allocation of COVID-19 vaccines had reached 277,000 last week.

“As production picks up, and particularly with Johnson & Johnson, we expect our allocations to remain steady or increase – all good news,” she said. 

But there are still people hesitant about receiving a dose of any of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccine hesitancy, medical experts say, should not be confused with the anti-vaccine movement, in which people believe that vaccines are harmful and often rely on theories that have been debunked in both academic and medical circles.

Robert Bednarczyk, a vaccinologist at Emory University, told The Times that only a small sample of the population are considered “anti-vaxxers.”

But Nydam said some people are hesitant to take this one.
“There are many reasons we hear about vaccine hesitancy, but probably the most prevalent are concerns about safety and efficacy, and how quickly vaccines were authorized by FDA,” she said.

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first emergency use authorization — not an official FDA approval — for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech for COVID-19. A week later the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination received the same authorization. Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine received its FDA authorization last month.

Increased collaboration and government funding helped speed the time table for vaccine development.

When it comes to risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines can be safely administered to immunocompromised people and the side effects are considered mild to moderate. 

According to clinical trials and health experts, common side effects include redness and soreness from the shot and symptoms of fatigue. In some cases, vaccine recipients might experience nausea, chills, headache or a fever. 

A small number of people have had severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. The CDC advises people with allergies to any of the ingredients in the vaccines to not get those vaccines but talk to their doctor about whether they could get a different COVID-19 vaccine.

There is a 15-minute waiting period after receiving the vaccine to monitor for reactions.

A person is considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after a second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna. It’s also a similar two-week period for a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

According to a February CDC study of vaccinated health care workers, a single dose of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine was 80% effective in preventing coronavirus infections,

“There have been a lot of studies about why people are vaccine-hesitant, and we keep learning more about differences in perceptions among different groups of the population,” said Bednarczyk.

In recent years, vaccines have been erroneously linked to causing autism, ADHD and other learning or behavioral disabilities. 

And recently, a letter sent to the European Medicine Agency -- the European equivalent of the FDA -- made false claims that the vaccine could harm a woman’s ability to give birth.

Health officials are fighting these claims, myth by myth.

“The myths are usually that COVID vaccine will give you COVID-19, or that it will alter your DNA, or that it causes infertility,” she said. “None of those are true.”

On its website, the CDC has a portal dedicated to debunking COVID-19 vaccine myths. According to the nation’s top health body, the COVID-19 vaccine does not give the virus to a recipient, it will not alter DNA or cause infertility or learning defects in unborn children.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines — which teach the cell how to make protein and then trigger an immune response — however, the vaccine’s mRNA doesn’t reach the nucleus of the cell where a person’s DNA is stored.

In addition to misinformation or a lack of confidence, Bednarczyk said that willingness to get the vaccine can be linked to a host of social factors.

“For COVID-19, we are seeing reluctance to get vaccinated, but some of this may be changing as more people see their family, friends and colleagues get vaccinated,” he said. “In our research, we spend a lot of time trying to learn from people why they may be hesitant to get vaccines so that we can better know how to reach out to people.” 

Vaccine hesitancy also varies along racial and ethnic lines. 

A nationwide survey from CVS Health/Payor Solutions tracked in January that 35% of Black Americans and 22% of Hispanic Americans intended to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Williams, a Black woman, said that she has often felt “unheard” when it comes to medical appointments and is worried that she won’t receive information that’s relevant to her when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’ve been in doctors’ offices and explained my situation and I don’t feel heard or I don’t have a doctor that looks like me explaining how it will affect my body,” she said. “I want to be healthy and be safe, but you just are unsure of what will happen to you.”

For marginalized groups, vaccine hesitancy can often be traced to pseudoscientific experiments conducted on people of color.

In the 19th century, physicians in the South forced Black women to participate in reproductive procedures without anesthesia and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932, was a 40-year experiment on 600 Black men in Alabama that led to hundreds dying as a result of untreated syphilis.

“Some of this is rooted in demographics,” Bednarczyk said. “African Americans may have a higher level of mistrust in the medical system based on generations of mistreatment and systemic racism, so it’s important to know how this history affects current perceptions.”

Education is also a central tenet for health officials when it comes to addressing vaccine hesitancy.

CVS Health launched its own initiative to address COVID-19 vaccine education and equity in vulnerable communities, with a particular focus on Black and Hispanic populations rocked during the pandemic.

“As we expand to additional states and locations, we will also increase access to vaccines by using mobile vaccination vans and offering community-based vaccination clinics working with nonprofit organizations,” the statement said. “We believe we can play an important role in educating the communities we serve about the vaccines and helping increase equitable access across the country.”

In their survey, CVS Health stated that “the responses clearly show greater efforts are needed to help people better understand the process of vaccine development, how vaccines work, and of the safety measures in place to ensure they are safe and effective before being approved.”

CVS Health said that people making vaccination appointments should consult with their doctor on their specific health situations.
Dave Palmer, Georgia Department of Health spokesperson for District 2, which covers Hall County, said that the district had a “steady supply of vaccine.”

“District 2 has been receiving a steady supply of vaccine,” said Palmer.  “As with any change, you don’t know what the expanded eligibility demand will be, but we have vaccines on hand and more on order.”

In recent months, three new strains of the coronavirus have come to Georgia. Palmer said that everyone who is able should get a vaccination and proceed with CDC recommendations as more information about the new strains and their spread develops.

“Until more is known about the new variants, everyone should get vaccinated and practice precautions – wear a mask, physically distance, avoid large gatherings and wash your hands,” he said. 

Nydam said that data on the new COVID variants and whether they can be fully resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines is incomplete.

“Currently, there are three COVID variants circulating in Georgia. Scientists are studying these variants daily and what we know is that they transmit or spread quickly and easily,” said Nydam. “We also know that stopping the spread of COVID will help decrease the emergence of new variants. What we do not know definitively is how the vaccines stand up to these variants.”

In his effort to assuage vaccine-hesitant Georgians, Gov. Brian Kemp, during his March 23 press conference, encouraged vaccination efforts.

“I just want to encourage everybody to get the vaccine. I mean, there is no doubt, we’re seeing this across the country, but especially in the South, we’re seeing vaccine hesitancy,” the governor said. “That is concerning. People should not be hesitant. This is a medical miracle. It’s safe. It’s effective.”

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