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Former NC Health Director: Anti-Vaccine Movement Is 'Like Nothing I've Ever Seen'

Tyson Foods team members receive COVID-19 vaccines from health officials at the Wilkesboro, N.C. facility on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The team members are eligible for the vaccine under North Carolina's Phase 2 distribution.
Melissa Melvin
AP Images for Tyson Foods

Vaccine mandates are not new.

Neither is the hysteria — by some — who oppose them.

On a recent episode of the WUNC Politics Podcast, host Jeff Tiberii spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Engel, the North Carolina State epidemiologist from 2002 through 2009, and the state health director from 2009 to 2012. Engel is certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases.

They began by talking about vaccine hesitancy, and the intellectual disconnect among those who refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine and then get sick.

Engle: The thing that people don't seem to be opposed to are medicines, medical treatments. So we don't hear a lot of pushback on the Regeneron cocktail, or Remdesivir, which is an antiviral drug. So it's really odd to me that people are willing to go ahead and get sick and look for a drug that you can pour into my veins and save my life. I'm not going to protest that. But so that same vaccine denier who's getting hospitalized with severe COVID-19 is putting his arm out and say 'pump it into me' is a complete contradiction. It doesn't make any sense.

Tiberii: Many elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, have called for such prevention. And they did this even prior to FDA approval of the vaccine. Still, success has been limited.

Engel: I think the pushback coming from the public is multilateral. I mean, one is that this is new, particularly the newer technology of using an RNA molecule to instill an immune response. It's the first time that we've ever used that platform for an infectious disease, so I can understand why there's someone who might be hesitant to receive this new technology. My question back is: how long do you need before you feel they're safe? It's been over a year now, since people who enter clinical trials, received mRNA vaccines, there's nothing emerged yet. And here we have a pandemic that could kill you, I can't think of any other better benefit, or make you quite sick. And we do know that the vaccine is really working well to prevent serious illness.

UNC Gillings School of Health
Dr. Jeffrey Engel

Tiberii: Do you have any hesitancy or concerns at all over the vaccines?

Engel: Well, I'll just say this, that no vaccine is 100%. safe. We've been living with lots of what I call very, very low risks that we find acceptable. So I will never say that that this is 100% safe. And I know no one would ever say that.

Tiberii: How would you have described the anti-vax movement in 1991 versus today?

Engel: Yeah, it's like nothing I've ever seen, because it seems to obviously have taken advantage of the major political divisions that we're seeing in the United States today. And for some reason, now, an anti-vaxxer is a Republican and a person who believes in vaccine as a Democrat. I never would have believed that in 1991. In '91, we are dealing with medical exemptions, which are of course, obvious, and religious exemptions. And then people who had what they called personal objections to vaccines, which are not allowed in North Carolina. So North Carolina has one of the strictest vaccine requirement statutes in the United States, which allow only medical exemptions or bona fide religious exemptions to vaccines, and this is for school age, children where they are mandated in North Carolina

Tiberii: You obviously cited the political divisiveness. You also note a new approach to coming up with the COVID-19 vaccine that might lend itself to some hesitancy from people. Are there other factors of note that led to this larger moment right now?

Engel: Yes, and I think I'll take some responsibility on this one. I think a failure on behalf of science and medicine, both in the practice and research, has been to communicate effectively to the public what we're doing and what we're studying and what our results are. We tend to be viewed as elitists, and paternalistic and in our messaging to the public, and we need to do a lot better.

Tiberii: Is that really on you? And with all the disinformation and all the anti-science sentiment, how can you and your field possibly combat that?

Engel: Obviously, when I was in government, we work with very skilled communication people, but you're right there, there comes a point in time when we have to just say, you know, some people are just not being rational here and listening to the evidence. And it's not a communication issue. It's more of a belief system.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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