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Worried About The COVID Vaccine? North Carolina's Plan For Vaccine Hesitancy

Daniel Schludi
Unsplash / Creative Commons

North Carolina’s Health Director, Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, expects a limited supply of coronavirus vaccine will be available here by the end of the year. That assumes, of course, that the Food and Drug Administration approves its emergency use sometime in the next few weeks.

Those most at risk — like health care workers and the elderly — will get priority. But she doesn’t expect there will be enough vaccine for everyone until next spring. In the meantime, she says, a lot of work remains to reach those who are reluctant to get the vaccine.

A WRAL survey conducted in late October — before some of the most encouraging news about the vaccines was announced —found 19% of North Carolinians would be willing to get one right away and another 31% would likely be willing after waiting a few months. But 16% said they’d wait until the vaccine is out for at least a year, and 18% say they’ll never take it.

A national poll by Gallup conducted between October 19 and November 1 found 37% of those who are reluctant to take the vaccine worry it was rushed. Another 26% want to wait to confirm it’s safe.

Tilson thinks many will be less hesitant if they have accurate information about the vaccines’ benefits and risks as information becomes available. She’s posting information on the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website which explains how vaccines work and how safety information is derived, and hopes that will become the go-to site for reliable information.

Tilson also says the Department has hired a communications firm to conduct focus groups so it can understand and address the concerns of specific groups. And she’s working with an advisory committee of doctors, public health experts, and community leaders who helped the Department develop its COVID-19 Vaccination Plan and will spread reliable information.

According to the WRAL poll, almost a quarter (24%) of African Americans say they’ll refuse a vaccine. Dr. David Priest, a member of the state’s vaccine advisory group, says incidents like the Tuskegee experiment — during which doctors intentionally injected unwitting Black men with syphilis — helped create mistrust among African Americans. Tilson says she’s been collaborating with the Department’s long-standing working group for historically marginalized populations and realizes it's important for doctors to acknowledge this difficult history so they can address it.

But Priest, who is the top infectious disease doctor at Novant Health, says vaccine hesitancy is common among a lot of groups. The WRAL survey found, for example, that although a quarter of self-described conservatives say they’ll take the vaccine right away, another 23% say they’ll never get a vaccine. Nor will 26% of parents of school children and 24% of North Carolinians age 18-49. That’s important because COVID-19 can continue to spread in groups where many refuse vaccinations.

Tilson says she’s anticipating “higher than typical vaccine hesitancy,” and thinks the politicization of COVID-19 has made it tougher. Priest says mistrust is fostered by a “bombardment” of COVID-19 misinformation and social media conspiracies from a highly organized anti-vaxx community. “They’re more savvy about those things than more reputable sources of information,” Priest says.

Vaccine misinformation researchers Nicholas Velasquez and Rhys Leahy agree. The George Washington University team published a paper showing that organized groups that push vaccine misinformation are able to connect with more undecided readers than sites with reputable data.

“Some people really come from a place of believing they’re protecting their kids,” Leahy says, “but sometimes there are also more obvious, sort of insidious or corrupt motivations … you’ll see someone saying “don’t get a vaccine, live naturally. Here’s my natural health product.” It’s a conspiracy to sell something, she says.

As an example, the team points to a social media site of a group called Natural News which warns about a “flood of COVID-19 vaccine injuries” while it hawks “the natural cure for COVID-19 the CDC does not want you to use.”

When Facebook started to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation ads, they say, it banned Natural News. So the group moved over to Parler and Gab, sites which have recently become popular among conservatives. The team says the site now mixes right-wing political messages with its product information and anti-vaccine posts.

NC DHHS is planning to find social media influencers — people with a lot of followers — to counter some of these messages, but they will have to counter what some worry will be an avalanche of misinformation.

Asked whether the quick pace of vaccine development is outstripping the Department’s messaging, Tilson says “this is a good problem to have. We’re working really, really, really hard, but I think the faster we can get a … safe and effective vaccine, the better.”

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