A bid to boost COVID vaccinations

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As the state’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines and the list of those eligible to get vaccinated grows, the focus is shifting from where one might get a shot to making sure that everyone eligible to be vaccinated gets a shot.

To that end, Common Ground Health has set up a COVID vaccine speakers bureau. The move comes as New York plans as of April 6 to make vaccines available to all residents 16 or older. Linda Clark, Common Ground Health senior health adviser, is spearheading the effort.

Common Ground Health is a Rochester nonprofit that works closely with state and area officials on health-related issues in the Rochester and Finger Lakes areas. It has been informally deploying speakers on COVID topics since February, Clark says. With vaccines becoming universally available, the agency wants to double down on its effort, making sure that as many eligible to be vaccinated as possible get dosed. 

While many have scrambled to secure vaccination appointments, some remain hesitant.

Linda Clark

“There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and myths circulating. We want to share accurate information,” Clark says.

Some are wary of vaccines because of the unusual speed with which they have been developed, she says. But others subscribe to bizarre theories like a few who fear vaccinators are inoculating people with microchips to track their location.  

Much has been made of minority communities’ distrust of COVID vaccination programs. Given a history that includes the Tuskegee experiment, some Blacks’ distrust of COVID vaccines is understandable, Clark says. In the Tuskegee experiment, federal public health researchers surreptitiously infected Black men with syphilis and tracked the deadly disease’s progress in their unwitting subjects for 40 years beginning in 1932.

Still, says Clark, Common Ground Health, working with local churches and others, has had some success in helping to arrange vaccination programs specifically targeted at minorities. Vaccine hesitancy is hardly confined to minority communities and is equally prevalent across the spectrum, she believes.  

A recent poll conducted by National Public Radio’s “News Hour” and the Marist Poll found nearly equal degrees of vaccine hesitancy among Blacks and whites surveyed. Seventy percent of whites and 73 percent of Blacks said they planned to get a shot, while 25 percent of Blacks and 28 percent of whites said they did not plan to be immunized against the virus, the poll found.

Political affiliation could be a more reliable indicator of vaccine resistance. A recent CBS News survey found that 34 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of independents said they planned to not get a COVID vaccine shot versus 10 percent of Democrats. On the positive side, 70 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of independents said they would get a shot or already had done so. The NPR poll found even higher numbers of Republicans—46 percent—versus fewer Democrats—6 percent—were planning to avoid COVID-19 vaccines. 

Clark is not sure how many people in Rochester might be opposed to being vaccinated. In January, local activists including Rochester City Council member Jose Peo and Black Lives Matter protesters held a rally in downtown Rochester to protest mandatory COVID vaccinations.

Clark says she found the protest puzzling because no one ever planned to make vaccinations mandatory or talked about proposing any such program.  

Public health experts see vaccination against the virus that causes COVID as more than a personal boon. If the pandemic is to be brought under control and life returned to a semblance of normalcy, they say, herd immunity needs to be achieved.

Herd immunity is reached when a large enough slice of the population is resistant to a harmful pathogen like COVID to keep the pathogen from easily jumping from host to host. The percentage of the population that needs to be immunized to reach that state varies depending on factors like how easily transmitted and how virulent a given virus or bacterial pathogen might be.

In the case of COVID, the point where herd immunity will be reached “is difficult to say,” Clark says. “I’ve seen all sorts of numbers. It’s safe to say that it’s more than 50 percent.” 

One factor that makes the herd immunity percentage hard to calculate now, says Clark, is that children under 16 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. While vaccines are not known to be harmful to children, they aren’t known to be safe either. That’s only because children were not included in clinical trials that tested the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines currently being administered in the United States. 

Trials testing the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness for children are now under way. Interim study data released last weekshow that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing infections in 12 to 15 year olds.  

COVID-19 has so far killed more than 550,000 Americans. According to the Monroe County Department of Health, that number included 1,206 in Monroe County as of April 3. 

Common Ground Health speakers include doctors, pharmacists and community health workers. Topics they might discuss could include how vaccines were developed and manufactured, how vaccines work, myths and misconceptions including the COVID vaccination program, and differences between vaccines currently offered. 

The agency’s speakers bureau is open to a variety of formats and venues, town hall type events, question-and-answer sessions, lectures or others, Clark says. Zoom sessions can be arranged.

To request a speaker or to apply to become a volunteer speaker, click here.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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