As COVID-19 vaccination rates begin to slow across San Mateo County while the state prepares to reopen, officials and trusted partners are working to dispel myths that may be contributing to vaccine hesitancy.
“These vaccines when you look at the totality are incredibly safe and effective,” Dr. Anand Chabra, section chief of COVID-19 mass vaccination and medical director of Family Health Services, said.
The county and its partners had braced for vaccine hesitancy caused by either misinformation or valid concerns. The agencies have touted the benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations with culturally sensitive messaging and set up mass and micro vaccination sites to give residents options and to reduce vaccine barriers.
As a result, more than 80% of county residents age 12 and older have been vaccinated to date. Confident the county can reach higher vaccination rates, officials have noted the process could take months as some still attempt to find the right vaccine path for them and others work through sustained hesitancy.
Chabra said some myths have been less prevalent as the vaccination process has progressed such as doses carrying microchips but others like infertility have carried through.
Speaking to the rate at which the vaccines were developed, Chabra said what could have been a two-year process was shortened into months because of federal and public support. Federal dollars helped expedite research while tens of thousands of trial participants also helped move progress along, he said.
Pfizer Inc., Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, the three pharmaceutical companies with vaccines currently in use, were still required to abide by all regular trial steps to receive emergency use permits from the Food and Drug Administration, Chabra said. And both Pfizer Inc. and Moderna have submitted applications for full approval from the FDA, he noted.
“The clinical trials were actually very substantial,” Chabra said. “Nobody was cutting any corners.”
Chabra debunked myths that the vaccines can alter DNA, a rumor affiliated with Messenger RNA technology present in the Pfizer and Moderna products. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine triggers an immune response by teaching a cell how to create a harmless version of a protein which exists on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.
Once it’s built, the cell deconstructs the protein then displays it on the cell surface. Recognizing the protein piece does not belong to the cell, the immune system builds a response and creates antibodies that can later fight off the actual COVID-19 virus.
The science behind DNA, mRNA, vaccines and the virus is complicated, Chabra said, noting it can be difficult to recognize the different ways each behaves. But ultimately, the contents of the vaccine have no path to the nucleus of a cell, making it impossible for the doses to alter one’s DNA, he said.
Largely made up of pure water with a small amount of vaccine product, Chabra said it’s also impossible for the doses to carry microchips or magnetic materials. Chabra noted the myths were created on the internet using out-of-context statements made by tech executives.
Despite having thousands of participants involved in the vaccine trials, the companies did not gather substantial information on how pregnant people or those looking to become pregnant may be affected by the doses, prompting federal agencies to recommend those individuals speak with a medical profession if concerned, Chabra said.
As a result, he said residents may have grown wary of accessing vaccines when pregnant or planning for pregnancy. Fertility continues to be the top concern raised by residents months into the vaccination process despite there being no scientific backing the doses or the virus itself can lead to sterilization.
“That may have led people to feel there may be some concerns with fertility or pregnancy but certainly the guidance now is that COVID is definitely a risk for pregnant women,” Chabra said, noting COVID-19 symptoms can be worse in pregnant people.
But some risks must be weighed against benefits of being vaccinated against the virus such as extremely rare cases of blood clots. About seven cases were reported among women who received Johnson & Johnson doses, leading officials to temporarily pause the use of the product.
With millions of doses administered already and rigorous monitoring systems in place internationally, Chabra said officials are confident problems with the vaccines have been identified. The benefits of vaccination also outweigh the risks or side effects, he said.
“The reality is any medical intervention has some possible risks but also many benefits and we’re always weighing the tremendous benefits of COVID vaccines against the small risks of COVID vaccination,” Chabra said.
The shots are also relatively painless though a fear of needles has led to some vaccine apprehension, most noticeably among children, he said, adding that fearful adults are likely to avoid vaccination sites altogether.
Confusion around whether residents should continue wearing face coverings has also been prevalent given the number of recommendations from leading agencies, Supervisor Dave Pine said.
“There’s just a lot of confusion out there with the different orders coming from the state and the CDC,” Pine said. “I think people are rightfully confused.”
County Health Officer Scott Morrow said in an email statement the county would follow state guidance on masking determined by the California Department of Public Health.
Currently, masks are not required for fully vaccinated residents when outdoors except for when in a crowded area but are when in indoor settings outside the home. Alternatively, unvaccinated residents are required to wear face coverings outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained and while indoors.
On June 15, when the state plans to lift most business restrictions, it will also align mask guidelines with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing fully vaccinated residents to resume many pre-COVID activities.
Two weeks after completing the vaccination series, residents can go outdoors and into establishments without a mask or social distancing, unless otherwise required by a government agency, local business or workplace, according to the CDC.
Workplace rules may vary, and state officials are still finalizing them.
Those who have not gone two weeks after completing the vaccination series are required to continue following current precautions as outlined by the state. Recognizing the difficulty in identifying who has and has not been vaccinated, Pine suggested residents continue to wear masks indoors.
“All indications are positive and we’re all eager to return to normal and not wear a mask but I think in certain settings it’s still prudent to wear a mask until we’re confident COVID is behind us,” Pine said.
Supervisor Carole Groom, a regular advocate for mask wearing, has encouraged residents to keep a mask on their body when in public and plans to continue wearing hers. She also noted fewer cases of colds and the flu were reported during winter months when mask wearing was common practice in the county.
“Vaccines have certainly changed conditions, especially the high percentage we have achieved,” Groom said. “I’m going to continue to feel safer by wearing a mask, especially in very public places with lots of people.”
Similarly, Board of Supervisors President David Canepa said he’s encouraged by the high vaccination rates. The supervisor has planned a reopening event for June 15 and said the roughly 150 participants are encouraged to wear masks if inspired but won’t be required to do so.
“I’m all driven by the science,” Canepa said. “In the beginning of this pandemic, I told everyone to wear their damn masks. Now because of our vaccinations, on June 15 let’s ditch our damn masks.”