When Pam Jones received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week at WHS Washington Hospital, a wave of excitement and relief flooded over her.
“I am one of the primary caregivers for my parents, who are both 86,” said Jones, an LPN who was given the Pfizer vaccine. “It’s not feasible for me not to help them with whatever they need.”
As more Southwestern Pennsylvania area residents get their first and second doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, polls report a growing share of the public wants to get vaccinated.
According to the most recent Pew Research Center report, overall, 60% of Americans say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for the novel coronavirus when they are eligible for it.
And almost half of adults surveyed this month expressed enthusiasm for getting the vaccine, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Among the key findings in the Kaiser report:
n The number of people who want to get the vaccine is rising across all racial groups, but Black and Hispanic adults – who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 – are still more likely than white adults to be hesitant.
n Rural residents are among the most resistant, saying they either definitely won’t get a vaccine, or only would if it’s required, and partisanship remains a factor in attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccination.
Local doctors, however, celebrate the scientific achievement of the COVID-19 vaccines, and encourage residents to get vaccinated.
COVID-19 – which has claimed the lives of more than 425,000 Americans so far – has taken a physical, mental, emotional, and economic toll, and the vaccine can end the pandemic, says Dr. Atif Saeed, an infectious disease specialist at Washington Health System.
“There are only two ways to develop immunity against this virus. One is to be exposed to the virus itself, resulting in infection with the potential complications of hospitalization, intubation, death or long-term morbidity in survivors,” said Saeed. “The other, much easier and safer way would be to develop immunity with an effective and safe vaccine, which is now available. That is why it is important for everybody to get this vaccine as soon as it is made available to them, so herd immunity can develop quickly to break this cycle of infections.”
Doctors said they understand people’s concerns.
Some who doubt the vaccine worry that it was produced quickly, and they don’t trust what’s in it or are concerned about what might happen if they take it.
Others worry they will contract COVID-19 from the vaccine (they won’t, said Saeed, because there is no live or dead virus in the vaccines).
But, said Dr. Joanna Swauger, a family medicine physician at Mon-Vale Primary Care Practices’ Rostraver Township office, even at the accelerated pace, the vaccine still went through the proper trials, and are shown to have mostly mild side effects. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide 95% immunity after the second shot.
“I do not think that any of the necessary steps in development were overlooked, and that these vaccines are safe as well as effective,” said Swauger. “Technology has become so advanced over time that it should not be necessary to take several years for the development of a vaccine, as in the 1950s when the polio vaccine was first introduced. With the infection rates and death toll soaring in our country, we do not need the vaccine in five years. We need it now.”
Polls also show that enthusiasm for getting vaccinated is related to whether a person knows someone who has already received a dose. About half of those in the Kaiser poll who want to get vaccinated knew someone who had.
Saeed said a concerted effort by both national and local leaders, as well as health-care providers, is needed to educate people.
Recently, former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama jointly urged Americans to get the vaccine, while celebrities and athletes from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Willie Nelson have received theirs and encourage people to do the same.
Locally, AHN, WHS and Mon Valley Hospital have reached out to the community to promote the vaccine. At Washington Hospital, health-care workers who received the vaccine filled out posters sharing why they got the vaccine.
Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, Chief Clinical Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Allegheny Health Network, and her husband, Dr. Chenits Pettigrew Jr., Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh, have worked to address vaccine hesitancy among minority racial and ethnic groups.
That skepticism is rooted in discrimination and historical abuses by the U.S. government, including the unethical Tuskegee experiments conducted on Black men with syphilis, said Larkins-Pettigrew, who, along with her husband, once lived in the city.
The couple, who took part in the Pfizer vaccine trials, understand the fears and reluctance people of color have expressed.
“We trust the science, and we want people who look like us to trust the science,” said Larkins-Pettigrew.
She said it’s important for the Black community to acknowledge the abuse they experienced, but to “understand that we’re in a different time and a different space,” and the ethics of medicine have advanced.
“We want them to take the vaccine. It’s something you need to do for yourself, your family, and the world. I want to see my grandchildren grow up, and I know they feel the same way. We all need to do our part,” said Larkins-Pettigrew.
Doctors encourage people who are hesitant about the vaccine to visit reputable websites including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Health, www.coronavirus.gov, and area hospital websites, and to talk with their health-care providers to get accurate information.
Saeed and Swauger expressed frustration at the conspiracy theories circulating on the internet – some people believe the vaccine contains a microchip to trace citizens, while others believe that it alters our DNA and that our immune systems are better than vaccines.
“It is extremely frustrating to see people reluctant to get the vaccine, which is extremely effective and extremely safe and can provide the necessary immunity without the risk of getting the virus, because of misinformation,” said Saeed. “Health-care providers are dealing with COVID-19 patients when they are hospitalized, and see a lot of them dying on a daily basis or remain on a ventilator for a prolonged period of time – and even after initial recovery, quite a few of them end up with what is known as long-haul COVID symptoms that can linger for months.”
Mary Ann Patterson, a nurse in the Emergency Department at AHN Canonsburg Hospital, said the decision to get the vaccine was easy for her.
“The benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh any risks of the vaccine,” said Patterson. “I’m old enough that I remember when we didn’t have a lot of vaccines. I remember people not that much older than me having polio. I remember having chickenpox. And I remember my mother saying that when the polio vaccine came out, it was such a blessing. (Polio) was such a fear for parents. I was so happy to be able to get the COVID vaccine. I feel better for myself and for the people I take care of.”
Nearly one year into the pandemic, Swauger wants everyone to do everything they can to stop it.
“I have heard many people say we are all in this together, and it’s true,” said Swauger. “We all need to get vaccinated and follow the protocol of wearing masks and social distancing if we want to develop widespread immunity and get back to life as normal.”