As vaccinations ramp up, so do our hopes of putting the pandemic behind us. But our path to a post-pandemic Washington requires an all-in effort. And it’s one that may hit close to home. You may have heard friends or family express concerns about getting vaccinated. Perhaps you have your own reservations. We call this vaccine hesitancy, and it’s perfectly normal.
In March the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that 21% of Washingtonians were experiencing vaccine hesitancy. If vaccine hesitancy goes unanswered, we may not achieve the herd immunity needed to stop the spread of COVID-19. We realize there’s a lot of information out there and addressing vaccine hesitancy requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
That’s why we sat down with Dr. John H. Vassall, one of our state’s top experts on vaccine safety, for a two-part interview. Dr. Vassall is the physician executive for Quality, Safety and Equity at Comagine Health, a national nonprofit that works closely with communities to improve healthcare systems. Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Vassall has worked tirelessly to learn all about the vaccines and share that information with others. Recently, he made some time to answer our questions and address some of the concerns people have about the vaccines.
If the vaccines are our best defense against COVID-19, why are people hesitating to get it?
Being hesitant is not necessarily bad, nor is it unexpected. Whenever something is new, like new technology, medication or surgery, people will be hesitant. Many people don’t want to be the first to try something brand new. Fortunately, we have experience with millions of people who’ve already been vaccinated. There were over 43,000 participants in the Pfizer and 28,000 participants in the Moderna clinical trials. In addition, the CDC reports that 250 million people in the U.S. have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, as of May 5.
Are you confident in the safety of the vaccines currently available?
I am extremely confident about the vaccines we have in Washington state. Both the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) and adenovirus vaccines (Johnson & Johnson) are remarkably safe and effective.
What would you say to someone who’s not as confident as you are?
Nothing is perfect, but the vaccine benefits far outweigh the risks. The vaccine is highly effective at about 95% [depending on the vaccine] and very safe. It’d be nice to say they are 100% effective, but nothing is. Getting in your car is not 100% safe. Although there are normal side effects to the vaccine, the risks of developing an adverse outcome are extremely rare. You're in more danger getting into your car every day than you are from developing a severe outcome from the vaccine.
That said, even though adverse reactions are unusual, I recommend additional precautions if you have a history of reactions to vaccines, or if you have severe allergies. Talk to your primary care physician before getting the shot, so they can discuss any special precautions that you might need.
How can we feel confident about the J&J vaccine after “the pause”?
The emotional side of me knows that when people are aware of the potential for a life threatening outcome, it’s more difficult to feel confident. But we must also remember that the occurrences are extremely low compared to the millions of vaccines given. I still consider the J&J vaccine quite safe.
Some people believe corners were cut because the vaccines are being given under emergency use authorization. That’s partially why the J&J vaccine was paused, out of an abundance of caution until they could gather more data. We’re being extra vigilant in looking for side effects. If anything goes wrong, it’s going to get reported and investigated — as it should.
How can I reassure someone if they are hesitant?
It’s difficult to explain sometimes because people must reconcile what they feel with what they know. The internet and the news can make that even more difficult. It’s challenging to explain, understand, and accept that some events that happened after a vaccination might not actually be caused by the vaccine. That’s why it’s important to rely on science and experts, rather than social media or the news, in some situations. I encourage people to do their own research from reputable sources like the DOH website and make their own decision. Just remember that it’s a personal decision to get vaccinated and people have to reach their own decision if it’s right for them or their family.
What’s a “good reason” for vaccine hesitancy?
Remember, vaccine hesitancy is pretty normal. I avoid judging whether a person has a “good or bad” reason; they have a reason — and that’s what must be addressed.
One of the best things you can do is to share your vaccine experience. People seem more likely to listen to those who have been vaccinated, and certainly to those who have already had COVID-19, rather than me. Your stories are very powerful.
What’s your top piece of advice for our readers?
Get vaccinated if you haven’t already. There’s no cost to you, and now it’s much easier to schedule one. Keep up with hygienic measures, like masks in indoor public spaces even if you’re fully vaccinated — there is still COVID-19 circulating in our environment, so we still need to be careful. Even after vaccination, there is still some risk, although small. And spreading the disease after vaccination is unlikely, but not impossible.
So, continue to protect others who haven’t been vaccinated.
Stay tuned for more from our conversation with Dr. Vassall, coming soon.
Originally published in Public Health Connection from the Washington State Department of Health.