Lately, Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann has been thinking back to 2009, when there was widespread misinformation that the vaccine that promised to quash the H1N1 pandemic somehow caused sterility.
History has repeated itself, and Mann is now hearing the same unfounded claim about COVID-19 vaccines. To be clear, there’s no data whatsoever to suggest that vaccines approved for the coronavirus affect fertility.
Though completely off base, such rumors and conspiracy theories are having real consequences, giving local residents pause about getting the very vaccines that offer the best path toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Mann explained Idaho vaccination rates have plateaued, and her staff has scaled back on its vaccination clinic hours, while offering them a bit later on Thursdays and a bit earlier on Fridays to try to accommodate people before and after work.
Mann also addressed some other unfounded concerns she’s been hearing from the public about the vaccines: It would be impossible for any of the COVID-19 vaccines to alter a recipient’s DNA, the vaccines have been thoroughly vetted in clinical trials and weren’t “rushed to market,” and there’s no mystery about the ingredients they contain. In fact, every patient who receives a free vaccination is given a handout with the list of ingredients the specific shot contains.
“Physicians’ first rule is do no harm,” Mann said. “Physicians are not going to be reviewing the data on these vaccines and recommending them and providing them to patients if there’s a chance to do harm.”
Many locals are convinced they have strong immune systems and are unlikely to get COVID-19 if they haven’t gotten it by now, Mann added.
“The reality is if you were to get COVID there is the potential it could cause very serious outcomes. People have to weigh that,” Mann said. “We also need to evaluate that this is a communicable disease and our personal decisions do have an impact on other people, potentially.”
If COVID-19 is allowed to continue spreading among large, unvaccinated populations, the risk increases that the virus will mutate and new variants will emerge that don’t respond to the vaccine, Mann explained.
Other common misperceptions spreading throughout the U.S. about COVID-19 vaccines are that they contain live culture and were made with fetal tissue — both completely false. One theory is circulating that Microsoft founder Bill Gates inserted microchips in the vaccines to track people’s movements — patently untrue.
“We are facing just an avalanche of misinformation being circulated that is not factual, that is not accurate, and if enough people see those things enough times they believe them,” Mann said.
As a likely consequence of this fake news, Idaho’s vaccination rates have been on a steady decline according to Idaho Division of Public Health records. Vaccinations peaked during the week of April 4, when 127,000 doses were administered, and dipped to 103,000 doses administered during the week of April 18.
Supply of vaccine wasn’t the issue. During the same timeframe, public health records show the state’s vaccine stockpile increased from 273,600 doses to nearly 354,000 doses.
Through April 26, 33.2 percent of Idaho residents 16 and older had been completely vaccinated, and 42.4 percent of that population had received a single dose. That compares with a national vaccination rate for the age group of 35.8 percent, with 52.7 percent of Americans in the age group having received at least one dose. Mann said the vast majority of Idaho residents who have received a first dose have come back for their second shot.
It remains unclear how long antibodies from vaccines will last, and many unknowns remain about COVID-19. But based on the historical understanding of vaccinations for other communicable diseases, Mann estimated at least 80 percent of the population must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. That’s the point at which enough people have been vaccinated to effectively stop the disease from spreading.
“That’s why it’s so important to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Mann said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was temporarily suspended after officials confirmed it may have contributed to blood clots in a handful of cases among millions. In Mann’s estimation, it’s remarkable that the cases were discovered at all, and the situation provides an example of how incredibly cautious officials are being to make certain the vaccines are safe.
In Southeast Idaho, Mann said Power County has consistently been the leader for the largest percentage of the population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine — 48.13 percent as of April 28. Bannock County’s rate was second best in the district at 43.09 percent.
Mann believes the staff at Rockland Pharmacy in American Falls is largely to thank for motivating people in Power County to get the vaccine.
Scott Anderson, pharmacist and owner of the business, said his staff was set up to send teams to area businesses and other off-site locations for vaccination clinics even before COVID-19 arrived. He’s placed an emphasis on going out into the community to vaccinate people to make getting the shot as easy as possible.
“Convenience is huge. We know that from when we do flu shots,” Anderson said, adding people also feel more comfortable getting vaccinated when they’re around coworkers.
Anderson said the local school district has also offered up its buildings for clinics, which has helped.
But even Anderson has seen interest in the vaccine decline, to the point that he’s scaled back from offering clinics on a weekly basis to scheduling them for every three weeks.
He, too, has answered questions from people with off-base concerns about the vaccines. The most common erroneous concern people cite, he said, is that the vaccine may be linked to infertility. He emphasized there’s absolutely no tie between the vaccine and infertility. What worries Anderson is the recent emergence of new COVID-19 variants.
“We’re having a harder time filling appointments,” Anderson said. “Seeing how hard it is to fill up some of our appointment slots now, there’s definitely a barrier we’re going to have to overcome.”