Healthcare, State Government, U.S. President

Vaccine fears and misinformation: Conversations with COVID Czar Clay Marsh and Mon County Health Officer Lee Smith

MORGANTOWN – Social media abounds with posts questioning the reality and severity of the COVID pandemic, and the safety and effectiveness of the COVID vaccines.

A recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey revealed widespread alarm about COVID vaccines: 49% of American adults believe it is likely that side effects of the vaccines have caused a significant number of unexplained deaths; 28% of adults say they personally know someone whose death they think may have been caused by side effects of COVID-19 vaccines; 48% of Americans believe there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, while 37% think people who worry about vaccine safety are spreading conspiracy theories.

A documentary available online, “Died Suddenly,” says COVUD vaccines set off “the greatest orchestrated die-off in the history of the world.”

And a New York Times article about vaccine fears cites this information: “From Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, Australian researchers collected more than half a million conspiratorial and misleading English-language tweets about Covid, using terms such as ‘deep state,’ ‘hoax’ and ‘bioweapon.’ The tweets drew more than 1.6 million likes and 580,000 retweets.”

Anti-vaccination physician Dr. Simone Gold regularly posts about athletes dying from cardiac arrest and links the deaths to the vaccines. And another anti-vaxxer posted a video of FOX News’ Tucker Carlson saying the vaccinated are three times more likely to get COVID and four times more likely to get severe illness or die than the unvaccinated.

Some concerns can be legitimate. On Friday, the CDC announced it is investing whether there was a safety concern for ischemic stroke in people ages 65 and older who received Pfizer’s bivalent, omicron-targeted vaccine. Rapid-response investigation of safety-monitoring signals raised a question of whether people 65 and older who have received that vaccine were more likely to have an ischemic stroke in the 21 days following vaccination compared with days 22-42 following vaccination.

The CDC cautioned, “It is important to note that, to date, no other safety systems have shown a similar signal and multiple subsequent analyses have not validated this signal.”

Elsewhere, CDC said, the U.S. Vaccine Event Reporting System received 5,542 reports of adverse events after bivalent booster vaccination among persons age 12 and up; 95.5% of reports were nonserious and 4.5% were serious events. “Health care providers and patients can be reassured that adverse events reported after a bivalent booster dose are consistent with those reported after monovalent doses. Health impacts after COVID-19 vaccination are less frequent and less severe than those associated with COVID-19 illness.”

In light of the ongoing questions, The Dominion Post talked with COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh and Monongalia County Health Officer Lee Smith vaccine concerns, anti-vax messaging on social media and related issues.

Lee Smith

“In social media, once something gets posted, it’s terribly difficult to get that out of people’s minds or try to correct that,” Smith said.

The Mon County Health Department has worked to diminish vaccine hesitancy and improve vaccine acceptance, he said, not just for COVID but all vaccines for preventable diseases.

He breaks COVID and vaccine communications into four types: information, rumor, misinformation and disinformation – which is a deliberate attempt to skew the information for particular purposes.

Decision making regarding vaccines is multifaceted, he said, based on such things as people’s gut instincts, attitudes, experiences, fears, concerns, beliefs, social norms and their ideological and moral identity in a community.

As a health official, he breaks the population into three groups: early adopters who actively demand vaccines, those who are reluctant or truly hesitant, and those who refuse.

Regarding the last group, he said, “Because things have become so politicized, it is extremely difficult for us as public health officials to convince somebody who’s made up their mind.” They either trust the person and the science or they don’t. If they don’t, there’s no way to change their mind and it’s unproductive to try, he said.

So health officials focus on the the middle group: try to meet their questions, prepare messaging and announcements, listen to their concerns and engage them in a decision making process.

“What we need to do as a public health service is try and put out as much information as we can, to not ignore concerns about sterility [which is misinformation] and pericarditis [a certain percentage can get this].” About 1 in 100,000 get pericarditis, so the odds are low and it becomes a risk-benefit consideration, taking into account the potential short- and long-range consequences of acquiring COVID.

“We know that people eihter trust the science or they don’t. All of this makes an uncertainty and gives a wedge for conspiracy theories to grow. Our only resource is to continue to address peoples concerns and bring factual information. At the end of the day people are going to make up their own mind.”

Smith said he’s unhappy that COVID got politicized. “Once politicians get involved in medical decision making, it makes it oh so complicated.”

People have rights and can exercise their own judgment, he said. “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t negatively impact another person.” A person may not want a vaccine, but it might protect a child or a pregant woman. “There are things that we do for the good of all.”

Clay Marsh

Marsh and Smith may term things differently, but are on the same page.

Marsh said, “There’s just a level of polarization in our country and on media that has tried to enhance audience focus to gain market share by having alternative views of some of the same information.”

He cites Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who said people are twice as likely to try to avoid negative consequences than have something positive happen. This, Marsh said, leads to negative advertising and pushing partially true or totally false narratives.

But the state COVID team, he said, looks at the data. “When you look at the data you certainly see a much different story.”

Marsh cited a study done regarding vaccine-related deaths in Qatar from Jan. 1, 2021, through June 12, 2022. Among 6,928,359 doses administered, 138 deaths occurred within 30 days of vaccination; eight had a high probability (1.15/1,000,000 doses), 15 had intermediate probability (2.38/1,000,000 doses), and 112 had low probability or no association with vaccination.

There have been 13 billion COVID vaccines issued internationally, he said, and more than 700 million mRNA vaccines issued in the U.S., with only a small handful of deaths attributable to vaccines – and all those tied the the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that was linked to blood clotting in women.

“These vaccines are remarkably safe,” he said. Alternative assessments are not compatible with the data.

Looking at those who are hesitant or opposed to vaccines, he said, part of truth that we are seeking is related to trust. If you think someone has an agenda and don’t trust that source, you’re very likely not going to believe the messenger.

In 2021, he said, COVID was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., and tied to getting vaccinated. Vaccination was the critical variable in the delineation of people that died from COVID and people that didn’t.

“I believe that each one of us has a personal right to make the right decision for ourselves or the people that we are [responsible for] their good health,” he said. “I am not going to criticize anybody for deciding to get a vaccine or not get a vaccine.”

And while the data is less clear for younger people, it shows that for those over 65, the vaccine is the best investment to have a longer life, not get severely ill or die from COVID.

“I think we as a country are struggling with a lot of polarity right now,” Marsh said. “Regrowing trust in leadership and putting leaders in place who have a larger view and want great things for the people they serve instead of themselves will help solve the great divide.”

We have become a culture that celebrates celebrity, money and power over service, unselfishness and vulnerability.

But West Virginia can become the best state in country. “That is really done by all of us working together to make sure that we are offering each other love and support, and not because you can do something for me but just because you are part of a shared community and family.”

Marsh concluded with some thoughts on the widespread distrust of the government’s handling of COVID, and the data it releases.

We’ve been flooded with real-time information about COVID, he said. “Even for experts, things have gotten confusing. Part of the COVID tale will be lack of expertise in crisis communication.”

CDC was once viewed as the definitive central information hub, but lost its standing.

“The CDC failed in many ways because they never really got a hold of the appropriate narrative and didn’t really have a plan in place to be able to deal with the complexities of a real time reporting. … So there’s no central place we could go to that the American public, in my opinion, really learned to trust that was able to give the people a much less biased of what was going on.”

The public needs to trust the source, he said, so that the attention isn’t directed at the source but at the health of the populace.

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