The science strongly supports the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Yet, many of us still have questions about its side effects, its ability to protect us and for how long.
In the final part of WBUR's virtual town hall series on the science, rollout and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, Endless Thread co-host Amory Sivertson and CommonHealth reporter Angus Chen addressed the biggest misconceptions about the vaccine and answered audience questions with Dr. Charles Anderson, president and CEO of The Dimock Center, and Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, Boston University School of Medicine assistant professor and infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center.
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On what the new CDC guidelines say about safety after vaccination
Dr. Assoumou: The problem with public health messages is that there's a lot of nuance. And it's really hard to get it right because some people often don't listen until the end. They just hear what they want to hear and they're done. The important message from the CDC recommendations was No. 1: recommendation for persons who are getting vaccinated. If you're vaccinated and you've had the two weeks after being vaccinated ... you don't have to quarantine if you are exposed [to the virus] and you don't have any symptoms.
That's actually important because, you know, before that, if you are exposed, you have to still go through the whole testing and quarantine. So for me, as a health care worker who is more likely to get exposed, that's good news. And then the second message is in terms of what does that mean for people who are vaccinated, and what is it that you can or can't do? I think that it was a very powerful message, for grandparents who are local, to say, 'You're vaccinated and you can visit your grandchildren even though they have not been vaccinated yet because we don't have a vaccine [for children], but if they're low risk and they're healthy, you can, in your house get together with them, take off that mask and hug them.' I think that that was a very important message that we needed to hear.
... Outside is better than inside; wear a mask; still be safe, but you can still do things safely.
On the efficacy of the three available vaccines in the U.S.
Dr. Anderson: It's really more about, 'How good is this vaccine at preventing one from getting COVID?'
... So you've got Johnson & Johnson, which in the U.S., I believe it's 72% effective. And actually there's another number they quote very often — 85% — which tells you how effective it was for preventing severe disease — which is probably the most important for us. But either way, it's way above that [FDA] threshold of 50%.
If we didn't have Moderna or Pfizer at 90-plus-%, we'd be all really, really excited about Johnson & Johnson. And we should be, because these are all three vaccines that have proven to be very effective in terms of preventing symptomatic disease and doing it in a way that's better than the threshold that we'd set up at 50%. ... I tell people all the time: whichever one you can get — as soon as you can get it, when your number comes up — by all means, get it.
On shifting the discourse from vaccine 'hesitancy' to vaccine 'confidence'
Dr. Anderson: I have my own term for this. I call it 'vaccine confidence.' We're trying to build confidence in the vaccine from where I sit.
But what's been really fascinating — I'm also a pediatrician, newborn intensive care pediatrics — so I lived through many of these phases of 'anti-vaxxing' ... and one of the things that we learned from that is just hammering people with information didn't really work. As a matter of fact — what we found — if anything, after a while, they just got fatigued. It was almost as if you're trying to convince them of something and they weren't really there. And what we found is that there was often something underlying it and what is really interesting about where we are now in terms of building vaccine confidence, when you really take the time to hear people's stories, especially in the community that I serve — where we're talking largely Black and Latinx communities — what you start to hear are these stories about not only the things we think in terms of Henrietta Lacks or in terms of the syphilis experiment. What we hear about is just the day to day challenges with racial discrimination, quite honestly, which contributes to this real huge sense of distrust.
And that's why I like thinking about this in terms of: how do we build confidence? And what we found is that allowing people to tell their stories is incredibly powerful. And it reminded me of those days in the pediatrics days where it was really individuals talking about how they became more confident and they were talking to each other in their own language with their own shared experience. And we're finding real great success right now with that in our street team.
On the importance of sharing personal stories to inspire vaccine confidence
Dr. Assoumou: My experience has taught me that every encounter, every experience is actually an opportunity to talk about the vaccine. And actually, one of the fellows at the hospital mentioned that one day she went to the grocery store and was wearing her Boston Medical Center Infectious Disease T-shirt. And actually at the [checkout], the cashier asked her, 'What do you think about these vaccines?' And this was her opportunity to talk about vaccines. So for me, it's been with every encounter with a patient, you know, we're talking about other things, and trying to save a few minutes at the end to talk about vaccines.
... I like acronyms. So I think of 'triple A': ask, acknowledge, and answer. And the first one is just asking people casual open ended-questions. 'What are your thoughts about vaccines?' And letting people talk and share, not with any assumptions, because what I've realized is everyone has a slightly different angle that they're coming from and has very different concerns. So the first thing is open-ended questions: 'What are your thoughts about vaccines, and what are you thinking about them?'
The second one for me, especially because I work at a safety-net hospital with a very diverse patient population, is to acknowledge, first of all, the misinformation that has happened and also the history of patients. We often talk about Tuskegee experiment, but the personal history and the lived experience of what it is like to be a person of color in the U.S. A lot of patients would tell you about many encounters where, this is not talking about what happened the past, but what happened to them today; what happened to their family or their friends.
... So just the importance of sharing your personal stories and your reason for doing it. And for me, I always say: I got vaccinated for me to protect myself with press, protect my family, to protect my community.
This article was originally published on March 09, 2021.