The following is an essay by Emma Frances Bloomfield, a UNLV communication studies professor who specializes in strategies for countering misinformation about science.
A year ago, the misinformation about coronavirus focused on it being an elaborate hoax, rather than a global health crisis. While more and more people now accept that it is a threat, they don’t necessarily accept that vaccines are our best way to counter it.
And sadly, our hospital ICUs are filled with people who have not been vaccinated.
As a researcher interested in science communication and controversies, I study how scientific misinformation spreads and how to correct it.
If you’re faced with a vaccine-resistant friend, first decide if it’s worth your time and energy to correct their misinformation. Sometimes we interact with people who are closed-minded and not willing to listen. You are not obligated to engage them.
However, if your friend is open to learning more, encourage that continued curiosity. Grant them some grace. No matter the topic, people often hear conflicting information and must decide which sources to trust.
Those arguing a point with misinformation often turn to nonscientific sources and blog posts to make their case. Instead of flat-out rejecting those resources, I offer to trade with them. For example, I ask them to share an article with me and I review it. In return, I’ll send an article from the Centers for Disease Control for medical and health information or link to the reputable debunking site Snopes to compare the information. The CDC’s frequently asked questions about the virus is an especially good source.
Here are the three most common, but misinformed, reasons people use to not get their COVID-19 vaccine and how I respond to them.
1. Some people believe that natural immunity is just as good as vaccine immunity.
If they already tested positive for coronavirus, they don’t believe they need the vaccine. Or they assume that because they’re a generally healthy person, they’ll recover easily should they become infected.
As one person I talked to put it, "If I need to hold my pants up, I can use a belt (natural immunity) or suspenders (vaccine), but I don't need both." And they prefer a belt, apparently.
Research does show that natural immunity is good and seems to protect a good amount of people. But, wearing pants pales in comparison to the seriousness of contracting COVID-19. While many people have no symptoms or only mild symptoms, a lot of people experience long-term, serious issues, and even death. The seemingly low death rates hide the chronic, painful issues of COVID "long-haulers," who still have difficulty breathing and may have lost their sense of smell/taste for months after recovering from the disease.
Moreover, natural immunity protection is mostly limited to the same strain, not mutations or variants. On the other hand, vaccine immunity has been shown to be effective against mutations of the virus. This is due to the way the mRNA teaches the body to respond to the crown/spike protein shape of the coronavirus.
Additionally, there is preliminary evidence that reinfection with COVID-19 can be much more serious and life-threatening than the original infection, making increased immunity from a vaccine perhaps even more important for those who have already contracted it and recovered.
Because individual bodies are different and it's impossible to know which strain you will pick up (a weak one or a serious one), catching COVID-19 is not a safe strategy but getting the vaccine confers similar (and even stronger) immunity. And if you have been infected with COVID-19, getting the vaccine confers extra immunity.
Instead of holding up pants, I would use the metaphor of safe driving: It's good safety practice to wear a seat belt and to use turn signals. Each individually can make your drive safer. Both together is even better.
2. The vaccine is "experimental" and not proven scientifically.
This is a pervasive and convincing argument. Who wants to take something that is untested? Correcting this requires a better understanding of emergency use authorization (EUA) and the extensive resources that went into developing the vaccines.
Even under an EUA, no vaccines are approved for production and distribution unless they have been tested in multiple clinical trials of increasing numbers. Although the vaccines were developed quickly, they went through full clinical trials where tens of thousands of people were monitored for adverse effects.
In addition, the mRNA within the vaccine "breaks down and is flushed out of your system within hours," so monitoring past a few months is not necessary to identify and measure reactions. Think about taking Advil: It also doesn’t stay in your system long, so any negative reactions are likely to happen immediately.
The EUA required two months of safety tests for the vaccines after they were developed and before they were approved. And now we have nearly a year of tests of millions of people worldwide who have taken the vaccines.
Operation "Warp Speed" is admittedly, a poor name. The speed of the vaccine development should not be thought of as "rushing" or "skipping steps" or "cutting corners." Instead, the speed should be associated with "prioritization."
Consider that labs all over the world shifted their full attention to developing this vaccine - the urgency and severity of it garnered unique and unparalleled focus, time, and funds. Resources directed elsewhere were re-routed to studying COVID.
If you have to reorganize a bookshelf, you may touch up a shelf at a time at your leisure between work and childcare and other responsibilities. Alternatively, if I cleared your schedule and gave you $100 to do it, what would have taken a week would perhaps take a few hours.
This prioritization (coupled with ongoing research in mRNA technology) made the vaccine available while still going through proper protocols faster than we typically think of vaccine development.
3. Some people believe that the vaccine will have serious side effects.
Serious side effects of the vaccine are exceedingly rare. There are people who have died after taking the vaccine, but there is no causal link established between vaccination and dying. In other words, simply because something happens prior to something else, without evidence that one caused the other, you are mistaking correlation for causation.
It is important to note that some people do experience mild/moderate reactions to the vaccine, but they tend to fade after a few days. These effects are much less disruptive and harmful than contracting COVID-19 itself. Getting the vaccine is thus a minor risk (and one that can be discussed with your personal doctor for a more tailored diagnosis) compared to the potential risks of COVID-19.
As two examples of side effects, some are concerned about the vaccine's effects on DNA and on fertility. While the vaccine does use mRNA, it does not affect any systems in the body besides our immune system and white blood cells, so does not interact with cell nuclei (where DNA is kept) or reproductive systems.
Indeed, current guidelines recommend pregnant women get vaccinated so as to pass antibodies onto children who are not currently approved to get the vaccine themselves. It’s also important to note that pregnant women may be more susceptible to COVID-19 side effects, so getting the vaccine protects both them and their child.
More guidance on countering misinformation
Read Emma Frances Bloomfield’s “How to Talk to Someone Who’s Misinformed about Coronavirus.