Myths in the time of COVID

As vaccines arrive, combating misinformation remains crucial

The nation's top doctor recently stopped in Illinois to urge people to get vaccinated. At a Dec. 22 press conference in Chicago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams recounted speaking earlier in the day with a nurse at a hospital who worked in an ICU that was at capacity. "Even if you don't personally feel at risk from COVID, your actions still can have an impact on you, your family and your community in other ways," said Adams. "That full ICU, it's full because there are COVID patients pushing it over the top." That means people facing emergencies such as car accidents or heart attacks could find there isn't a bed for them, he said.

The good news was that the nurse in that full ICU had been vaccinated – as had more than 100,000 health care workers in Illinois by Dec. 23. "I'm actually incredibly optimistic, based on these two vaccines now being available, that we do have a finish line in sight," said Adams, referencing the vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

Still, he urged, vigilance is crucial. People should continue to wear masks, wash hands, watch their distance and wait to gather in groups outside of those they live with. The vaccine is 95% effective, he said. Having already gotten an initial shot himself – the vaccines require two doses for full efficacy – he said the only side effect he experienced was a sore arm.

Adams, who is Black, said he understands why people of color might not trust the medical and government establishments due to past mistreatment. But he urged leaders in those communities, including faith leaders, to help inform people. Fear should not be a reason people don't get vaccinated, he said.

Safety

During the Chicago press conference, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, aimed to dispel rumors about ingredients in the vaccines. Included on her list of what's not in them: antibiotics, blood products or fetal cells. Some have spread the conspiracy theory that the vaccines are a government plot to implant microchips. Arwady made the point that vaccines don't contain those either.

Dr. Vidhya Prakash is a professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield who specalizes in infectious diseases. "I do want to emphasize that while it (vaccine development and approval) was done in a record period of time, it was done very, very carefully and through all the proper channels and processes," she said. "This vaccine is safe. And it is necessary both to protect individuals and to protect the public."

While wide-scale vaccination is a key to an eventual return to "normalcy," Prakash said, "I would really caution that once you get the vaccine you absolutely need to continue to wear a mask and wash your hands and watch your distance for the foreseeable future." Prakash said health experts will be monitoring data to know when mitigation efforts can be scaled back. "But I anticipate it is going to be a while before we get there."

Michael Olson is an assistant professor at SIU School of Medicine. He said people should know the vaccine does not contain a live virus. In both versions of the vaccine, the key ingredient is messenger RNA, which helps trigger an immune response within the body. "There is no chance whatsoever of developing COVID or spreading COVID from receiving the vaccine," said Olson.

He said he gets questioned by his family and friends about whether they should get vaccinated. "I have that conversation regularly. And my answer is, when the vaccine is available and it's your turn, I would get it."

Rollout

Gail O'Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, has heard her own share of COVID myths. "We had someone believe that the vaccine could cause a sterilization process or make you unable to have children." She attributed that to a misinterpretation over the use of sterile water to dilute vaccines. She's also fielded concern that the COVID vaccine will be required by the government. She said that's not the case, though some employers or schools might eventually require the vaccine as they do others.

COVID-19 vaccinations in the county have started with medical staff on the front lines. She said the public health department will eventually be offering vaccination for the broader public. The plan is for people to either come to the health department building or through a drive-up on an appointment basis. While adverse reactions are rare, people will wait for a short period of time after getting the vaccine in case any additional care is needed, she said, including in the case of anxiety. O'Neill said the vaccine might be available broadly by March – maybe sooner.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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