The Biden administration is working to stamp out misinformation that might dissuade people from getting coronavirus shots, a crucial task as the nation shifts into the next, more difficult phase of its vaccination campaign.
The White House announced Friday that 100 million Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the nationwide rollout is plateauing as fewer people sign up for shots.
Administration officials and health experts know the difficulty ahead in getting vaccines into as many people as possible, and are trying to eliminate the barriers to doing so.
Authorities need to dispel the legitimate concerns that make people hesitant, while also stopping waves of misinformation.
This past week, top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci corrected Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host who himself later acknowledged his lack of medical knowledge, after Rogan said young healthy people don’t need to be vaccinated.
“You’re talking about yourself in a vacuum,” Fauci said of the podcast host. “You’re worried about yourself getting infected and the likelihood that you’re not going to get any symptoms. But you can get infected, and will get infected, if you put yourself at risk.”
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield also joined in the criticism.
“Did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking? I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information,” she told CNN.
Rogan’s comments were trending on Twitter for two days before he attempted to walk them back.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m a f—ing moron, and I’m a cage fighting commentator … I’m not a respected source of information, even for me,” he said.
Public health experts said Rogan’s comments were irresponsible, and potentially dangerous because they could perpetuate hesitancy.
“You have a responsibility as an adult, you have a responsibility as a community leader, your responsibility as a communicator to get it right,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
While Rogan is not a political figure, he has one of the most popular podcasts in the world, and an enormous platform.
Rogan hosts the most popular podcast on Spotify. Rogan said in 2019 that his podcast was being downloaded 190 million times per month.
People are not getting all their information from Rogan, but when his comments clash with what public health experts say, that is problematic.
“It’s not so much that Joe Rogan’s a comedian, he’s very popular with people sort of leaning on the conservative side, especially young people. And that’s the group that we have to reach, especially young men,” said Peter Hotez, a leading coronavirus vaccinologist and dean of Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine.
Hotez, who has appeared on Rogan’s show in the past, said he thinks the host was just misinformed. Hotez said he has reached out, and wants to help Rogan have a more productive discussion about why it’s so important for everyone to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Polls show vaccine hesitancy is declining, but the holdouts are not monolithic, and experts believe trusted messengers will be needed.
“I just think they have to speak the facts. You speak the facts, and anytime you discover the facts that are incorrect, you try to correct them,” said Benjamin. “And … I don’t think you demonize the individual, nor do I think you try to pin motive to it, because you don’t know what the motive is.”
Some people are most worried about side effects, some are concerned about the safety of the vaccines and some people don’t think COVID-19 is a problem at all. There are also likely some people who will never be convinced, and try to sow confusion and distrust.
Biden administration officials are aware of the harmful impact of misinformation, but know they are walking a fine line between people who legitimately want more information and those who just want chaos.
“We know that people have questions for multiple reasons. Sometimes because there’s misinformation that they’ve encountered, sometimes because they’ve had a bad experience with the healthcare system and they’re wondering who to trust, and some people have just heard lots of different news as we continue to get updates on the vaccine, and they want to hear from someone they trust,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during a White House briefing.
For the White House, using medical experts like Fauci to correct obvious misinformation is part of the strategy to boost vaccine confidence.
“Our approach is to provide, and flood the zone with accurate information,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “Obviously that includes combating misinformation when it comes across.”
The administration has also invested $3 billion to support local health department programs and community-based organizations intended to increase vaccine access, acceptance and uptake.
Still, experts said different messengers are needed, especially when trying to reach conservatives who may now view Fauci as a polarizing political figure.
“There needs to be a better organized effort by the administration to really understand how to reach groups that are identified in polls as saying they won’t get vaccinated,” Hotez said. “We need to figure out how to do the right kind of outreach with the conservative groups, and we’ve got to do something about” the damage caused by members of the conservative media.
In a recent CBS-YouGov poll, 30 percent of Republicans said they would not get the vaccine and another 19 percent said they only “maybe” would do so.
The underlying mistrust comes after a year in which Trump and his allies played down the severity of a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans already.
A national poll and focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz showed Republicans who voted for President Trump will be far more influenced by their doctors and family members than any politician.
To that end, a group of Republican lawmakers who are also physicians released a video urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The video, led by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), features some of the lawmakers wearing white coats with stethoscopes around their necks speaking into the camera.
When a Miami school said earlier this week that it wouldn’t allow vaccinated teachers in its classrooms, its founder cited “vaccine shedding” as her main concern.
The trope is currently abuzz in anti-vaccine circles, said Nicole Baldwin, MD, a pediatrician who has been a target of attacks by the anti-vaxxer community.
“It’s amazing, and sad, what people will believe,” Baldwin told MedPage Today.
Essentially, they believe that people who’ve had the vaccine can somehow shed the spike protein, which in turn can cause menstrual cycle irregularities, miscarriages, and sterility in other women just by being in close proximity.
“This is a new low, from the delusional wing of the anti-vaxx cult,” said Zubin Damania, MD, a.k.a. ZDoggMD, in a video he recently posted to bust vaccine shedding myths.
Damania said the misinformation originates from an earlier claim that syncytin, a protein involved in placental formation, bears some structural similarities to the spike protein, and therefore vaccination would interfere with women’s reproductive systems. Many a fact check has shown that vaccines don’t target the protein.
Once injected, the vaccines prompt cells to make the spike protein, but it’s usually cleared in 24 to 48 hours, leaving little opportunity for “shedding,” even if it could occur — which it can’t, Damania emphasized.
Another logical fallacy he pointed out: “Why, then, wouldn’t natural spike protein do the same thing? Wouldn’t you be more scared of natural coronavirus infection? Oh, but it’s ‘natural.'”
Damania noted that there are legitimate questions and research about whether the coronavirus itself and vaccines have an impact on women’s menstrual cycles. Since the beginning of the pandemic, women who’ve had COVID-19 reported changes to their menstrual cycle, and Damania said that researchers are assessing reports of changes to the menstrual cycle following vaccination.
Regarding the potential relationship to vaccination, “we don’t understand, first, if it’s true, and if it were true, what is the mechanism?” he said. “Anything that causes stress, inflammation, and an immune response may have an effect on the menstrual cycle. … Could it be that the vaccine causes a temporary change in menses? Sure, it’s possible, and it’s being looked at.”
Leila Centner, co-founder and CEO of Centner Academy, the Miami school that has banned vaccinated employees, told NBC News in a statement that “tens of thousands of women all over the world” have reported reproductive issues from being around someone who has been vaccinated.
Baldwin pointed out an Instagram video, now marked as misinformation, in which a nurse, Maureen McDonnell, RN, and a physician, Lawrence Palevsky, MD, discuss the effect of vaccines on women’s menstrual cycles.
“This isn’t just a trivial thing,” Damania said. “It’s quite harmful.”
The American public’s attitude toward COVID-19 vaccination has evolved rapidly since the end of last year. The share of adults who report they have either already been vaccinated or intend to get the vaccine as soon as possible continues to rise (currently about 62 percent), while the share who say they will “wait and see” continues to shrink (now 17 percent). Importantly, however, the share who say they will either “definitely not” get vaccinated or only do so “if required” (currently 20 percent) has remained stubbornly consistent since December.
As the US reaches a vaccine tipping point, with more COVID vaccines available than people willing to be vaccinated, it will be important to understand this vaccine-hesitant population more clearly. A recent consumer segmentation analysis found that this group falls into four major behavioral profiles, shown on the right side of the graphic above.
The next phase of vaccine rollout must specifically address the key concerns of individuals in each of these different segments. For example, the “watchful” group, the easiest to persuade, will likely respond to a more transparent vaccination process and the amplification of positive vaccination testimonials. On the other hand, “system distrusters,” generally comprised of younger, lower-income minorities, would benefit most from hearing community leaders discuss vaccine safety. Unfortunately, the largest segment of vaccine-hesitant Americans, the “misinformation believers”, will also be the most difficult to turn. These individuals are more likely to hold rigid, politically driven beliefs.
While countering misinformation by leveraging trusted influencers may help convince some, this group may be the hardest to persuade—although their participation will be crucial to hitting any goal of “herd immunity” by this fall.
One hesitates to elevate obviously bad arguments, even to point out how bad they are. This is a conundrum that comes up a lot these days, as members of the media measure the utility of reporting on bad faith, disingenuous or simply bizarre claims.
If someone were to insist, for example, that they were not going to get the coronavirus vaccine solely to spite the political left, should that claim be elevated? Can we simply point out how deranged it is to refuse a vaccine that will almost certainly end an international pandemic simply because people with whom you disagree think that maybe this is a good route to end that pandemic? If someone were to write such a thing at some attention-thirsty website, we certainly wouldn’t want to link to it, leaving our own readers having to figure out where it might be found should they choose to do so.
In this case, it’s worth elevating this argument (which, to be clear, is actually floating out there) to point out one of the myriad ways in which the effort to vaccinate as many adults as possible has become interlaced with partisan politics. As the weeks pass and demand for the vaccine has tapered off, the gap between Democratic and Republican interest in being vaccinated seems to be widening — meaning that the end to the pandemic is likely to move that much further into the future.
Consider, for example, the rate of completed vaccinations by county, according to data compiled by CovidActNow. You can see a slight correlation between how a county voted in 2020 — the horizontal axis — and the density of completed vaccinations, shown on the vertical. There’s a greater density of completed vaccinations on the left side of the graph than on the right.
If we shift to the percentage of the population that’s received even one dose of the vaccine, the effect is much more obvious.
This is a relatively recent development. At the beginning of the month, the density of the population that had received only one dose resulted in a graph that looked much like the current density of completed doses.
If we animate those two graphs, the effect is obvious. In the past few weeks, the density of first doses has increased much faster in more-Democratic counties.
If we group the results of the 2020 presidential contest into 20-point buckets, the pattern is again obvious.
It’s not a new observation that Republicans are less willing to get the vaccine; we’ve reported on it repeatedly. What’s relatively new is how that hesitance is showing up in the actual vaccination data.
A Post-ABC News poll released on Monday showed that this response to the vaccine holds even when considering age groups. We’ve known for a while that older Americans, who are more at risk from the virus, have been more likely to seek the vaccine. But even among seniors, Republicans are significantly more hesitant to receive the vaccine than are Democrats.
This is a particularly dangerous example of partisanship. People 65 or older have made up 14 percent of coronavirus infections, according to federal data, but 81 percent of deaths. That’s among those for whom ages are known, a subset (though a large majority) of overall cases. While about 1.8 percent of that overall group has died, the figure for those aged 65 and over is above 10 percent.
As vaccines have been rolled out across the country, you can see how more-heavily-blue counties have a higher density of vaccinations in many states.
This is not a universal truth, of course. Some heavily Republican counties have above-average vaccination rates. (About 40 percent of counties that preferred former president Donald Trump last year are above the average in the CovidActNow data. The rate among Democratic counties is closer to 80 percent.) But it is the case that there is a correlation between how a county voted and how many of its residents have been vaccinated. It is also the case that the gap between red and blue counties is widening.
Given all of that, it probably makes sense to point out that an argument against vaccines based on nothing more than “lol libs will hate this” is an embarrassing argument to make.