When it comes to COVID-19, battling conspiracy can be as much a chore as fighting the disease itself.

The COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were developed to respond to an infectious disease that has killed more than 374,000 people in the U.S., as of Tuesday, Jan. 12, yet some Americans are still reluctant to get the life-saving vaccine.

“People have a fear that we don’t understand enough about the vaccine to really know what the potential complications could be,” said Dr. Alex Harsha, who works at Lakewood Health System’s Staples and Browerville clinics.



Dr. Alex Harsha is a physician at Lakewood Health System. Submitted photo
Dr. Alex Harsha is a physician at Lakewood Health System. Submitted photo

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Holley Mathieu, a licensed psychologist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in the Brainerd lakes area, talked about rumors spreading through social media — myths and misconceptions, which often go unchecked and unverified, and can proliferate exponentially.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now in regards to a lot of different things. This is a situation or a time in society when we’re figuring things out as we go,” Mathieu said. “We’re building the plane while it’s in the air.”

COVID-19 vaccines

The number who have received the COVID-19 vaccines has fallen well below the goal of the Trump administration, which had a goal of 20 million vaccinated against coronavirus by the end of last year. Even when the vaccines become widely available, some may still refuse to get them.

“I think because there’s a lot of unknowns in people’s minds, people tend to, you know, get emotional, in response to things. And we know that when we reason emotionally, we never reason quite as effectively,” Mathieu said. ““I’ve seen some of the claims (on social media) the vaccine will embed things in your body or change your DNA, or change your genetic composition and things like that.”

RELATED: U.S. widens vaccination eligibility as COVID-19 deaths mount

Mathieu said she plans to be vaccinated when it's available to her.

About 11.4 million doses have been distributed as of Dec. 28, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 2.1 million have been administered as of that date, exceedingly short of the target number set by Operation Warp Speed.

Holley Mathieu is a licensed psychologist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in the Brainerd lakes area. Submitted photo
Holley Mathieu is a licensed psychologist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in the Brainerd lakes area. Submitted photo

Operation Warp Speed

Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership initiated by the U.S. government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, have tried to combat misinformation with education.

“Emotions set us on a course of thinking, and sometimes it’s highly biased. When we face info that conflicts with our own beliefs, that can sometimes trigger negative emotions … memories or associations that are emotional and less bound to reasoning and to science,” Mathieu said.

RELATED: Nearly 7,400 Minnesotans have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19

A total of 7,392 people in Minnesota have received two doses of the vaccine for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to Minnesota Department of Health officials.

Vaccines, officials said, have proven effective in the past.

“A vaccine works based on the idea of introducing something to your body that stimulates a response in your immune system such that it’s going to recognize a virus, or in some cases a bacteria, that we think is worthy of trying to prevent,” said Harsha, a family physician.

“Usually, that means a piece of that virus or bacteria that’s not live, but your body can kind of recognize and build up defenses against. And in other cases, it means introducing fake proteins that look like those viruses or bacteria to do the same thing.”

RELATED: Trump administration to deliver guidelines to speed up vaccinations, Axios reports



Lakewood President and CEO Tim Rice receives his first round of the COVID vaccine from Brittany Seurer, a licensed practical nurse. Submitted photo / Lakewood Health System
Lakewood President and CEO Tim Rice receives his first round of the COVID vaccine from Brittany Seurer, a licensed practical nurse. Submitted photo / Lakewood Health System

Vaccine efficacy

Harsha said with the COVID-19 vaccines it is impossible to become infected with COVID-19 because the vaccines are novel in that they do not contain any viruses at all — live or dead.

“Particularly in this climate — this political climate — there are a lot of concerns about how quickly a vaccine was developed, and whether there were corners cut or something like that,” Harsha said of the remarkable speed at which the COVID-19 vaccines were developed.

RELATED: Cass, Crow Wing, Wadena record more COVID-19 deaths

Mathieu said of social media and human nature, “We have a disconfirmation bias in that we actually exert energy at times trying to build arguments against info that challenges our own beliefs or thoughts.”

The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which work by instructing cells in the body how to make a protein that triggers an immune response.

“This particular type of vaccine is new. … And this scares people because it’s something that’s never been used before in vaccines, at least not in the general population,” Harsha said. “But mRNA (messenger RNA) technology is something we’ve been working on for over 20 years.”

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Vaccine rollout

Health care workers and long-term care facility residents, as well as nursing home residents, are among those who are currently being vaccinated in Minnesota under a prioritization schedule drawn up by state health officials.

“People are worried that we don’t know enough about the side effects. What I tell people is that the vaccine has been studied in large-scale trials, clinical trials, that were very well done and they looked for side effects for about three months after the vaccine was given,” Harsha said.

RELATED: You need the facts about COVID-19 vaccines. Is there anyone who shouldn't get one?

Minnesota will have likely been allocated enough doses of vaccine — about 500,000 — to account for all members of the first group in that prioritization schedule by the end of this month, according to health officials.

“The risks of the infections that we’re vaccinating against are much higher than the risks of the vaccines themselves, which is why we give the vaccines in the first place,” Harsha said.

RELATED: 5 cases of virus variant found in Minnesota

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can become an “echo chamber” — reinforcing an individual’s belief and amplifying it by connecting the person with other like-minded people who “echo” the same sentiments thereby confirming the person’s views.

“That’s founded in a lot of social psychology research,” Mathieu said. “The idea of the confirmation bias — that we give greater credibility to ideas or ‘evidence’ that supports our own beliefs.”

Dr. Adrianne Moen, a family medicine provider at Lakewood Health System, receives her first round of COVID-19 vaccine from Jody Yeager, a licensed practical nurse. Submitted photo / Lakewood Health System
Dr. Adrianne Moen, a family medicine provider at Lakewood Health System, receives her first round of COVID-19 vaccine from Jody Yeager, a licensed practical nurse. Submitted photo / Lakewood Health System

Misinformation

Mathieu said it’s vitally important that people get their information from credible sources.

“I think we need to remember that, right now, these times are uncertain, and people are emotional. And we have to go back to the things that had been validated in the past,” Mathieu said of fact-checking.

RELATED: Third U.S. lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration include so far the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

“I know many people are worried because of how new the vaccine is, but in my eyes whatever the vaccine does can’t be any worse than what’s already happening,” said Mikayla Isabelle, a 17-year-old Motley resident who said she wants to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

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"I know many people are worried because of how new the vaccine is, but in my eyes whatever the vaccine does can’t be any worse than what’s already happening."

— Mikayla Isabelle


Isabelle works in an assisted living facility in Baxter and said she believes it is “wonderful” scientists have been able to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine relatively quickly.

“I am sick and tired of watching these people that I care for die. Not only do they die but it’s a very painful death,” Isabelle said. “You cannot tell me that COVID ‘isn’t that bad’ until you’ve watched someone gasp for air for days until eventually dying.”

RELATED: Pope Francis to have COVID-19 vaccine, says it is the ethical choice for all

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported an additional 1,335 new cases of COVID-19 and 13 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s pandemic death toll to 5,724.

Assisted living facilities have been especially hard hit by COVID-19.

“Between our two facilities, we are reaching close to 20 COVID deaths alone, not counting deaths of residents that had other ailments that COVID worsened. Just two days ago, we had another resident pass,” Isabelle said.

Education

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has implored people to take the coronavirus and the precautions to slow the spread of it — wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands — seriously.

That’s also the hope of local officials.

“We want to make sure that we’re seeking to reason in a logical way. And that as we seek to reason in a logical way, we’re getting our information from reliable and trusted sources … and I think that newspapers would be such a source,” Mathieu said.

RELATED: ‘We’re coming as fast as we can’: Officials offer understanding for those eager for vaccine

Harsha said, “The important thing for people to hear is that the vaccine is extremely safe, and it’s extremely effective … And there’s nothing different about this vaccine that makes it more risky than any other vaccine.”

COVID-19 vaccine myths debunked

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine is not safe because it was rapidly developed and tested.

Fact: The emergency situation warranted an emergency response but that does not mean that companies bypassed safety protocols or didn't perform adequate testing. In addition to the safety review by the FDA, the Advisory Committee on Immunization convened a panel of vaccine safety experts to independently evaluate the safety data from the clinical trial.

Myth: I already had COVID-19 and recovered, so I don’t need to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available.

Fact: Early evidence suggests natural immunity from COVID-19 may not last very long, but more studies are needed to better understand this.

Myth: There are severe side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Fact: There are short-term mild or moderate vaccine reactions that resolve without complication or injury. Keep in mind that these side effects are indicators that your immune system is responding to the vaccine and are common when receiving vaccines.

Myth: I won’t need to wear a mask after I get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fact: It may take time for everyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccination to get one. Also, while the vaccine may prevent you from getting sick, it is unknown at this time if you can still carry and transmit the virus to others.

Myth: More people will die as a result of a negative side effect to the COVID-19 vaccine than would actually die from the virus.

Fact: Circulating on social media is the claim that COVID-19's mortality rate is 1% to 2% and that people should not be vaccinated against a virus with a high survival rate. However, a 1% mortality rate is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine was developed as a way to control the general population either through microchip tracking or nano transducers in our brains.

Fact: There is no vaccine “microchip,” and the vaccine will not track people or gather personal information into a database. This myth started after comments made by Bill Gates from The Gates Foundation about a digital certificate of vaccine records.

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine will alter my DNA.

Fact: The first COVID-19 vaccines to reach the market are likely to be messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. Human cells break down and get rid of the mRNA soon after they have finished.

Myth: COVID-19 vaccines were developed using fetal tissue.

Fact: Neither the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine nor the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal cells, nor were fetal cells used for the development or production of either vaccine.

Myth: COVID-10 vaccines cause infertility or miscarriage.

Fact: COVID-19 vaccines have not been linked to infertility or miscarriage. A sophisticated disinformation campaign has been circulating online. This disinformation is thought to originate from internet postings by a former scientist known to hold anti-vaccine views.

Source: Mayo Clinic News Network

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.