‘It’s just absolutely, 100%, to the core, false’: Vaccine misinformation contributes to hesitancy

MADISON, Wis. – It spreads fast, perplexes doctors and everyone is at risk. That’s not just COVID-19, but pandemic misinformation – arguably just as tough to contain.

“There’s a lot of people, educated people, and it crosses all demographics,” said UW Health Chief Quality Officer Jeff Pothof said. “I think misinformation is a tremendous barrier to people feeling comfortable about getting vaccinated.”

Misinformation has been floating around from the start of the pandemic.

“It is a threat,” said Dr. Alison Schwartz, the associate medical director of infectious diseases at SSM Health. “As I reflect on the pandemic, it’s been probably the biggest stressor for me.”

“All of us in the medical profession, public health, the scientists, it makes us pull out our hair,” Pothof said. “It seems odd that in the midst of the worst public health crisis in the last 100 years, when we have something that is so effective and so safe and so good at putting the brakes on this thing, and there’s all this information out there that is just not true.”

Common false narratives include the idea the vaccines alter one’s DNA, which they don’t, and the notion they can cause infertility or pregnancy issues, which isn’t true.

Vaccines don’t cause infertility

Schwartz points to the Pfizer clinical trials, when 23 women became pregnant. The only one to miscarry was in the placebo group, meaning they had not received the vaccine.

“The risk of severe illness and complications from having a  SARS-CoV-2 infection are much greater if you’re pregnant, so sort of the opposite,” Schwartz said. “Rather than not wanting to get vaccinated out of fear of something happening with your fertility or with your pregnancy, we actually would encourage those people to get vaccinated to help protect themselves and their baby.”

While data supports vaccination is safe for pregnant women, she recommends patients talk with their doctor to make that choice.

Being around vaccinated people won’t affect you

Some of the myths from patients surprise even the doctors.

“They had heard five years from now it would wipe out their immune system and they would die and I’m like, I haven’t heard that one,” Pothof said. “I don’t know where this stuff comes from. It’s just absolutely, 100%, to the core, false.”

“The one that is sort of circulating now is this idea that being around vaccinated individuals can affect someone’s menstrual cycle, and sort of this false information that even just being near someone who’s been vaccinated can make you infertile or cause headaches or other symptoms,” Schwartz said, adding that ingredients in your vaccine don’t leave your body before breaking down. “From a scientific perspective, it just really doesn’t make sense.”

At the same time, doctors acknowledge it’s normal to have questions.

Addressing vaccine concerns, questions

“I wasn’t going to go in,” said Shelby Welchel, a painter who lives in Janesville.

Welchel has lived with HIV/AIDS for 40 years. She wanted to know how the vaccine would affect immunocompromised people like her.

“People get scared when they don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” she said.

Some worry the vaccines were developed too quickly. Schwartz explains an incredible amount of effort and funding went into their development, along with overlapping trials. The vaccines also don’t contain any active coronavirus that can get you sick. Common side effects such as flu-like symptoms come from your own immune response.

A common concern is about potential long-term effects years down the road. UW-Madison Associate Professor of Population Health Sciences Ajay Sethi said that timeframe needs to be adjusted.

“Really, just three months after the vaccine, maybe four months after the vaccine, if there are any long-term effects of the vaccine, they will reveal themselves,” Sethi said.

That’s because the vaccines break down relatively quickly in our bodies, and we can look to evidence from other vaccines now used for decades.

“The supposed long-term effects of the vaccine would have revealed themselves by now,” Sethi said.

Long-term effects of COVID, on the other hand, can plague about 30% of people who have gotten the disease. That includes symptoms like trouble breathing and fatigue.

“Long haul stuff, that’s what I’d worry about long-term,” Schwartz said.

Younger people are also at risk of those long-term effects – and of falling for myths.

“Here’s a good one: I’m young and healthy so I don’t need to get vaccinated,” Schwartz said. “We do know, especially with the new variants, in particular the B.1.1.7, there is a greater proportion of our younger population who are becoming very sick or even sometimes being hospitalized or put on the ventilator more so than what we had seen earlier in the pandemic.”

“For 99.9% of the population, this is an easy decision,” Pothof said. “It should be an easy decision, and unfortunately, it’s become difficult.”

‘One conversation at a time’: From vaccine hesitancy to vaccine confidence

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows certain groups such as Republicans have a higher share of people than other groups of saying they don’t plan to get vaccinated, and Black and Hispanic adults have a higher share of those saying they plan to “wait and see” than white people. But Sethi said it’s important to look at the big picture.

“For any category, age, political leaning, race, ethnicity, occupation, there’s still a majority of individuals who are interested in getting the vaccine or already have gotten it than people showing some potential hesitancy,” Sethi said, noting that even the percentage of those who say they’re definitely not going to get the vaccine is going down.

“I come from the school of thought that it just takes one conversation at a time,” he said, saying that positive messages can go viral, too. “With that, you begin to change norms in communities and neighborhoods.”

“I think that there’s still a big subset of the population who is willing to get vaccinated, they just need to have one more question answered,” Schwartz said.

That’s something she’s happy to do. She’s explained to a patient that being on antibiotics doesn’t prevent them from getting the vaccine.  She also helped Welchel weigh her options, and the Janesville resident decided to get her shot.

“At least I can say I did everything possible I could to keep everyone as safe around me, including myself,” Welchel said. “I beg you to please get vaccinated, especially for people like me.”