Originally published on Sumner Newscow on April 18, 2021
As COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available, there’s been a faction of U.S. citizens who remain hesitant, if not outright against, taking it. In a March 16 Sumner Newscow poll, 26 percent of you said they would not be getting a governmental-approved coronavirus vaccine (see here).
But Sumner Newscow (or Mouthful of teeth) readers are not the exception. The reason for such hesitancy varies, and can’t be defined by one group of people or factor or geographical location. The only common denominator is a large portion of the population is worried about the vaccine.
This article is designed to be a guide to those people who have concerns and address these COVID vaccine myths. I have interviewed people who range ideologically from those slightly worried about the vaccine to those who will refuse the shot no matter what.
In order to answer people’s concerns: I am answering 25 questions or misgivings from people I have communicated with.
1- What is COVID-19 and how is it different from the flu?
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus that was discovered in 2019, hence the abbreviation COVID-19. While its symptoms are similar to the flu or the common cold, they’re very different viruses in their severity and treatment.
Both diseases are respiratory illnesses that share many symptoms including cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue, and muscle aches. The primary difference is that COVID is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus while the common cold is caused by the Influenza A and B viruses.
This means a couple of different things, but the short of it is that COVID is much nastier and deadlier than its contemporaries.
Some symptoms that COVID carries that the flu and allergies do not include loss of taste and serious GI issues like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. The onset of symptoms can take up to 10 days (up to eight days more than the flu) for COVID and remain transmissible even asymptomatically for months beyond that, which the flu cannot.
The severity of COVID and the complications it can incur are what also make it so dangerous. COVID-19 is a harsher respiratory disease than influenza and poses a drastic risk to anyone with an underlying medical condition, which can range from something as serious as cancer or as commonplace as asthma.
The complications are what kill the most people, however. Since COVID is new (or novel), it causes a slew of more severe conditions we can’t treat since we can’t cure the underlying virus. COVID-19 and the flu share some nasty complications like heart problems, lung disease, and even organ failure, but COVID will put you at a much higher risk. In addition to that, some complications only COVID incurs include blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs, or brain, and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)
For a full comparison of the flu and COVID 19, check out this chart from the American Thoracic Society.
The final key differentiation between the two is in their prevention. The flu can be prevented with yearly vaccinations and easily treated because the Influenza A and B viruses respond to over-the-counter antibiotics. COVID-19, on the other hand, is a brand-new disease our immune systems aren’t prepared for and can only be slowed by common-sense safety measures…that is until a vaccine came out.
2- Why should we trust these vaccines or the medical profession that is administering them?
This is a long-standing and extremely justified issue some have with medicine of any kind, but in this situation, it isn’t necessary and I’ll explain why.
Historically, medicine was a guess-and-check type of science and has deservedly fostered mistrust. While most news outlets pretend Black people are the only ones behind this skepticism, gay men have, in some cases, refused the vaccine because of worries stemming from the HIV crisis. And the most resistant group to the vaccine is white, evangelical Christians with a flabbergasting 40% hesitancy rate.
The good news about the COVID vaccination effort is that the entire process is being done from the top-down, meaning the best of the best are leading the charge and everyone below them is legally required to do it the correct way. This means even if there is an evil, racist, homophobic doctor, they can’t inject you with poison. Each dose is marked and tracked through VTrckS, a public system so it’s monitored from the plant to your arm.
3- Are doctors getting paid for attributing deaths to COVID?
This claim got its start on the Fox News opinion show the Ingram Angle, whose host asked Dr. Scott Jensen, a Minnesota state senator and family physician if hospitals could charge more for diagnosing patients with COVID-19.
The claim stems from the fact that Medicare pays out $13,000 to a hospital if the patient is diagnosed with COVID and $39,000 if they’re put on a ventilator. What needs to be understood about these payments is that they aren’t bags of cash with dollar signs on the front. They go directly towards treatment and the average payout by Medicare for any respiratory disease in 2017 (two years before COVID was even discovered) was almost exactly the same amount.
Dr. Jensen was asking a fair question about what he saw could turn into a problem, but when he was asked after the interview aired if he thought the scam was actively happening, he said he did not believe hospitals were intentionally misclassifying cases for financial reasons.
The real trouble began when Former President Trump reiterated the disproven claim at a campaign rally on October 24. From there, it entered the mainstream and lost the original Fox News context for which it was birthed.
After that rally, pundits started reporting that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allowed for an extra 20 percent payment from Medicare if treatment was for COVID, which made some people more suspicious. Medicare responded by auditing claims around the country and stated publicly that a positive COVID test was required to receive any additional funding and they had found no cases of fraudulent reporting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely scattered cases of misappropriated deaths to COVID-19, but they are in the extreme minority and statistically insignificant. For an even more nuanced take, read how the Association of American Medical Colleges counts and records COVID-19 deaths.
4- If doctors are getting paid for prescribing certain medications why should I trust them with vaccines?
While this can sometimes be true, it’s only for the select few doctors who get chosen to speak at events for the drug companies and there’s a touch more nuance to it.
The linked analysis by ProPublica admits doctors are often educated about these drugs because of their relationship to the company, and that leads to an uptick in that drug’s prescription. But it does not conclude that patients are receiving worse treatment even from doctors taking money on the side.
That doesn’t mean this is a good or ethical practice and you should definitely worry if you’re being overprescribed opioids. But the same logic does not apply for a vaccine. There doesn’t need to be a lobbying effort to convince doctors the vaccine is a good idea because that’s a given. Even if an unethical doctor is worth their salt, they’ll recognize how valuable these vaccines are and any amount of auditing will validate that.
5- Doctors work for the government. Why should I trust them?
Man, I wish they did. Unfortunately, we here in the United States still have a for-profit, out-of-pocket, healthcare system. This means, rather than having the government use our taxes to pay for all our healthcare, we have to beg insurance companies not to bankrupt us.
The good news is that the COVID-19 vaccine is free of charge, unlike other medicine in the U.S.
Where this fear probably comes from is the fact the government still regulates healthcare. While our regulatory system has major flaws in it like private companies overcharging patients, the important part, the medicine, is monitored for safety and effectiveness.
6- What about homeopathy or alternate medicine?
I know some people are very into “natural medicine” and supplements, and I’m not asking you to give that up, but it’s important to note the distinction between homeopathy and COVID vaccines.
The Mayo Clinic has this to say about the most popular forms of supplements and herbal remedies used to “treat”. COVID-19:
“Many people take vitamin C, zinc, green tea, or echinacea to boost their immune systems. But these supplements are unlikely to affect your immune function or prevent you from getting sick. The supplement colloidal silver, which has been marketed as a COVID-19 treatment, isn’t safe or effective for treating any disease. Oleandrin, an extract from the toxic oleander plant, is poisonous and shouldn’t be taken as a supplement or home remedy.”
While some supplements like Vitamin C, Zinc, and Vitamin D, have shown to reduce some of the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19, there is no evidence to suggest they’re effective against the virus itself.
If you have a nutritional deficiency that requires you to take any of these supplements, you should absolutely continue taking them, but they certainly will not cure, or even help treat, COVID.
7- “Doctors don’t want you to know about natural medicine.”
It’s not that doctors don’t want you to know about natural “medicines,” it’s that they’re professionals and don’t want their patients to take a fake, or even potentially dangerous, treatment for a very real disease.
8- “Everyone has different opinions and that’s a good thing.”
Again, mistrust in the medical profession is fairly common, but that shouldn’t be categorized as a “different opinion.”
Different opinions are good when you’re picking where to grab dinner, but not on science. We have experts who devote their lives to the work and your opinion can get in the way of their attempts to save peoples’ lives.
If it feels like a coordinated effort to write COVID-19 misinformation, that’s because it is. The leading players in the anti-vax movement met up in October 2020 to coordinate messaging. So, when there is a dedicated system in place to ensure you aren’t receiving proper safety information, please look to the experts.
9- “Thirty percent of Republicans are against the vaccine.”
This is a popular saying from those all along the political spectrum and it isn’t as if Republicans are the only group resisting the vaccination efforts (but it is more common in right-leaning individuals) and the statistic isn’t even accurate.
The good news, even if you take the 30 percent figure at face value, is that the percentage is falling as more and more people get the vaccine and recognize its safety.
Misinformation isn’t something new in America and the political divide is certainly deep, but this isn’t something we want to unite over.
10- “Someone I know is in the medical field and is anti-vax so…”
This is incredibly concerning, but not for the reason you think.
People who work in the medical field should recognize that their friends and family will take their suspicions seriously and when they’re wrong, they need to recognize that. A KFF poll found that 18% of healthcare workers do not plan to be vaccinated, thankfully that number drops to 8% for those who actually diagnose and prescribe medicine, so don’t take that form of medical advice from your sister who does physical therapy.
11- “Celebrities are also anti-vax”
Celebrities, even the ones popular on the left, are not who you should take medical advice from. There’s a huge difference between Morgan Freeman telling people he trusts the scientists and hopes everyone takes the vaccine and Jenny McCarthy telling people vaccines will give their kids autism because she’s “pretty sure.”
The difference is that the former is broadcasting the authority of actual medical professionals and the latter is broadcasting debunked conspiracy theories.
But while we’re on the subject of valid sources, I’ll explain the methodology behind mine. The sources in this guide aren’t valid because I say so, they’re valid because I don’t source opinion pieces or anything that isn’t evidence-based and confirmed by the scientific method.
That’s why medical governing bodies like the WHO and the CDC are trustworthy and who you should be listening to. While there are plenty of good news sources, even some with a political bent, you should always check who they are sourcing and if you can’t find that, it’s a fair bet you shouldn’t be taking their medical advice.
For those reasons, even though I have my own trusted news sources, I am only referencing scientific journals, medical studies involved with research, organizations with public funding records, and the governing bodies of the global medical field.
12- “I have some safety concerns with the vaccination.”
Maybe you don’t buy into homeopathy and you trust medical experts, but you’re still worried about some lingering side effects. Those are fair concerns and deserve your attention, but I’d like to break down some of the most prevalent ones I’ve heard from interviews and read on the news.
On April 13, the FDA and CDC released a joint statement recommending a “pause” in the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine out of “an abundance of caution” over blood clots. Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said later that day the pause was not a “mandate” and treatment should remain open for people who need it. So there’s already some confusion on what to do.
Firstly, it needs to be said that these clots have only affected six women out of 7 million people who have received the vaccine. That’s 0.00009% and while six cases are still something to research, stopping the vaccine effort and throwing the validity of one of the three vaccines we have into question is reckless and unethical.
The type of blood clot is called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) and impedes the amount of blood going to your brain. Since the event is so rare, the problem isn’t that it’s happening at all, but that we can’t use Heparin, a popular blood thinner, for treatment so we don’t know how to solve the problem yet.
Although these clots are definitely an issue, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still safe and you should take it if it’s available.
13- “Vaccines might have long-term side effects”
I have great news on this one. Long-term side effects haven’t happened in the history of vaccines, because the longest possible time between side effects is two months. This has to do with the process a vaccine takes to train your immune system and is the reason we don’t have to keep getting checked for our tuberculosis vaccines every few months.
Even better, short-term side effects are actually a good thing because it’s a sign that your body is responding normally to the vaccine. I can tell you from experience, the day after I received my second Pfizer shot, I felt like I had a terrible hangover, but after plenty of water and a long sleep, I didn’t experience any other side effects.
14- “Bill Gates is going to put a chip in us”
This is a conspiracy theory with a couple of different origins but started when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $100 million to funding the COVID-19 response. Gates then held an “ask me anything” (AMA) on Reddit where he said:
“Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.”
The quote was referencing the at-home testing kits he hoped would be connected to a network to keep a live count on the number of people testing positive, but it was too late, the trolls had what they needed.
Further “proof” of the conspiracy came when the foundation funded an entirely separate research project aimed at creating an infrared code that could be used to keep extremely small amounts of information (think a microscopic QR code) on a patient’s skin to keep their medical data handy in places where record-keeping is scarce. The project was designed to help developing nations without a centralized record-keeping system.
Kevin McHugh, a researcher who worked on the study later said this when he heard of the conspiracy:
“These markings were developed to provide a vaccination record and there is no ability to track anyone’s movements. This technology is only able to provide very limited (e.g. non-personalized) data locally. These markings require direct line-of-sight imaging from a distance of less than 1 foot. Remote or continuous tracking is simply not possible for a variety of technical reasons.”
After that, Emerald Robinson, a conservative journalist for Newsmax, tweeted out a popular version of the conspiracy theory that Gates was going to start using the vaccine to track people. Now that it had entered the conservative mainstream, it didn’t take long for Laura Ingram to ask the sitting attorney general at the time, William Barr, about the conspiracy on Fox News.
What was catchy about this theory is that it fit the “anti-global elites” messaging of the QAnon movement, and the “mark of the beast” rhetoric hyper-Christian apocalypse doomsayers espouse. These two groups intersect more often than you think.
15 – “It’s not FDA approved”
Yes, all three are.
Some people are still concerned because they’re only cleared for “emergency use.” Think of that distinction not as them shoving it out the door before they know it’s safe, but instead allowing them to use it on a wider audience faster than the process usually allows.
That might sound scary, but each vaccine had to go through multiple tests including tens of thousands of patients to get that clearance and the FDA has taken every precaution to ensure your safety.
You can read more about exactly what that distinction means here.
16 – “Why do they keep changing the rules and guidelines”
The easy answer: it’s a new virus we’re still learning about. The rules need to change as more people get vaccinated and how we interact with each other after that. Guidelines are meant to be adjusted so even if the CDC says that we can have a small barbeque once more people are vaccinated, it doesn’t mean they were wrong before, it’s a good sign that the situation is changing.
17 – “It’ll change my DNA”
No, it won’t. Even though the mRNA vaccines are a new type of treatment that kind-of sounds like DNA, that isn’t how any of it works, which I’ll explain in more detail below.
18 – “I’m pregnant”
This was a major concern at the beginning of the vaccine rollout but is becoming much less of an issue as the data come in. Trials are ongoing, but this is still an important concern because data on the effect on pregnant people is limited (for now).
Right now, the CDC has seen no evidence that the vaccine would harm pregnant people and still recommends that pregnant people get the shot if possible. If you are or were pregnant when you received the vaccine, please enroll in V-Safe, the (poorly named) online registry that checks on the health of pregnant individuals to gather more data and make stronger recommendations on what to do.
The good news is, the CDC stated that the way the vaccines work cannot affect infants who are breastfeeding so if you breastfeed, rest easy. Additionally, spouses and other partners can and should still receive the vaccine.
19 – “We don’t know if these new vaccines work the same”
Maybe you believe in vaccines but aren’t sold on these vaccines. The best explanation I’ve heard about the efficacy of vaccines comes from this Vox video:
I understand if you’re skeptical of Vox and want to check their sources, so they have them listed at the end of the video and follow the same standards I do.
20 – “But what are mRNA vaccines?”
mRNA vaccines are extremely new and the COVID vaccines are the first major run of them. Traditional vaccines worked by injecting people with a weak dose of the virus so our bodies would learn how to fight it, but mRNA takes a different approach that doesn’t require sticking everyone with a COVID spiked needle.
mRNA vaccines teach our bodies to produce a specific protein that triggers the correct immune response. So, think of it as the same training course for our immune system as any other vaccine without all the risk.
We’ve known about this type of treatment for a while now, but have never been able to make a vaccine using it yet. If you’re wondering why we haven’t always done it this way, it’s because it’s a very complicated science, but we hope to use it for new vaccines against HIV and even cancer.
If you still aren’t sold on vaccine efficacy, here’s a graphic of the miracles vaccines are responsible for
21 – “I have some personal objections”
Finally, I know there are some of you who just take issue with being asked to take a vaccine. Maybe you don’t usually take the flu shot and you just don’t want it, but once again, there is a bigger issue at hand than that.
22 – “Well, it’s about my rights and my choice”
This sounds like a sound argument in theory, because why should anyone tell you what to do if you’re being safe right? Well, that’s not how this will work.
We need to achieve “herd immunity,” which means enough of the population needs to become immune to the virus that it can no longer spread. We’ll get to herd immunity in one of two ways: enough people get the vaccine or enough people die that only immune people are left.
The World Health Organization explains nicely why it’s important:
“For example, herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated. The remaining 5% will be protected by the fact that measles will not spread among those who are vaccinated. For polio, the threshold is about 80%. The proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known”
The current problem is that we won’t know how high that proportion needs to be until we’ve actually reached it. Various guesses have it between 80-95% of the population so it’s really important to do your part and bump that number as high as it can go.
23 – “Is the anti-vax movement a new phenomenon?”
You might also know someone who is just anti-vaccine in general, which has seen an unfortunate rise in popularity in recent years (although it isn’t completely new).
The modern movement started when Andrew Wakefield wrote a whitepaper popularizing the frequently debunked myth that certain vaccines are linked to autism. Wakefield is from Great Britain and used to be a doctor but had his license revoked for promoting pseudoscience and his false and disgusting theories. After Wakefield’s paper, vaccination rates dropped and the UK declared its first measles epidemic in 14 years, killing at least 2,000 people.
The same consequences were seen here in the States too when 125 people caught measles in California in 2014.
Anti-vax beliefs are so dangerous the World Health Organization listed “Vaccine Hesitancy” on its list of “Top 10 Threats to Global Health in 2019” outranking Dengue Fever and HIV.
But one of the biggest reasons anti-vax propaganda was able to take off is because so few people alive today actually saw what disease used to do to an entire population. There’s a reason the so-called “greatest generation” is in such support of the vaccine push and that’s because they lived through Polio. It’s important to remember the pandemics that came before this one, so we don’t take the blissful existence provided to us by vaccines as a sign we no longer need them.
24 – “Why are people being mean to me about my concerns?”
Maybe you don’t believe in any of the points above, but you’re just upset people are rude to you for not wanting the shot. You need to understand that a lot of the myths listed here rely on a long history of distrust in science and that distrust has killed an untold number of people.
When you repeat myths that sound reasonable to you, people more familiar with the material get personally angry because they know the problems that kind of thinking can cause.
So, while you might be upset someone left you a mean comment on Facebook, people have been inside for an entire year and you’re holding up the best way to return to normal. But I’m not here to belittle you, it’s to help you understand the context of misinformation and hopefully ease your concerns enough to get the vaccine that will save you (and maybe someone else’s) life.
25 – So what is your recommendation?
Go get your shot.
If there’s a theory that still gives you pause, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d love to include it.