When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, public health experts gave a prescription for riding it out a.k.a. Flatten the curve. They believed that with intentional social distancing, lockdowns, contact tracing, etc., we could reduce the amount of cases, as we waited for the vaccine. The hope was, and still is, that a mass vaccination will be able to restore the world back to “normal”.
As the vaccine approaches the final stages before being released to the public, many Americans have sworn off receiving the vaccine due to the haste in its production, questioning its legitimacy and safety. Health experts are beginning to respond to such fears. Some are as bold to say that those who do not receive the vaccine will become “weak links” and only perpetuate the pandemic.
Responses from health experts
Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, warned on Tuesday, September 8, that people who don’t take the COVID-19 vaccine will become a “weak link” that allows the coronavirus to spread.
Bourla, whose company is in late-stage testing for a potential inoculation, said he understands the public’s concerns about vaccines, which are being developed in record time. He also said that Pfizer will only request authorization from the Food and Drug Administration after data shows that its vaccine is safe and effective.
But he also said people who decide against taking the vaccine once available “will not only affect their lives.”
They “will affect the lives of others because if they don’t vaccinate, they will become the weak link that will allow this virus to replicate,” Bourla told NBC’s “TODAY.”
“What if we get a safe and effective vaccine and people choose not to get it?”
After the increase in Americans who say that they will not receive the vaccine, health experts have stepped up to explain why Americans should change their minds.
According to STAT and the Harris poll, 83 percent of Americans agree that if a vaccine is approved too quickly, they would worry about its safety. The goal of a lot of health experts is to resurrect faith in the science and work behind America’s public health.
Let’s say there is a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, approved without political interference by the FDA. And still, 30 percent or more of Americans refuse to get it. Does that immediately ruin the chances of a vaccination campaign succeeding? Not necessarily.
Natalie Dean, a biostatistician and vaccine researcher at the University of Florida, explained that there are several variables at play that will determine what proportion of the population will need to be vaccinated. It will all be determined by the number of people vaccinated.
There’s still time to get it right.
It requires not just developing a safe vaccine, approved without the taint of a political rush job, but also conducting a vast social science research effort to better understand people’s anxieties about the vaccine, and then help move them toward acceptance.
No approved vaccine exists yet. But every day, pharmaceutical companies are making progress on vaccine trials, and some may release data before the end of this year. That means the window to get it right “is closing,” Emily Brunson, a medical anthropologist at Texas State University, says. “If we don’t, we run the risk of undermining public health in the US — and even more specifically undermining the entire vaccination program.”
“We are in a window of time right now where this can actually be addressed, and be addressed well,” Brunson says. A botched vaccine campaign could undermine public health in the United States. But a good campaign, she stresses, could lift it up, and “increase faith in public health and belief in vaccination. That would really put us as a country, across the board, on a better path.”
How do we get ahead of this hesitancy problem?
Experts say there needs to be widespread, on-the-ground anthropological (social science) research in communities to find out what their vaccine concerns are and to test educational campaigns to address those concerns.
“We are, and should be, investing an enormous amount of resources in the research and development of a vaccine,” said Sandra Crouse Quinn, Professor and Chair of the Department of Family Science and Senior Associate Director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity. “We’ve invested very few, almost no resources, in the social and behavioral science research that will help us understand in real time how the public will respond to a vaccine.”