The woman's voice was unflinchingly confident as she spoke, addressing the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors during public comment. "It is unscientific," she said of the creation of three different COVID-19 vaccines, each of which built upon decades of research and underwent months of rigorous trials, and the near unanimous recommendation of health officials across the nation and the world that people should get vaccinated in an effort to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
It was a telling moment. Not because of the woman's opinion — it could not be more wrong — but because of the surety with which it was delivered. And it begs the question: How do we combat misinformation and disinformation in an age when it is so pervasive and insidious that it can both assault from all sides on social media and also lurk in a virtual internet buffet line that allows people to hunt and peck for the bits that reinforce their suspicions or seem to confirm their biases?
It's clear our current educational strategy is falling woefully short almost everywhere, but especially here in Humboldt County, where nearly 45 percent of the population remains unvaccinated and infection and hospitalization rates are surging higher than they have ever been.
Last month, the Rural Association of Northern California Health Officers — doctors from 11 counties from Mendocino to Modoc, Glenn to Del Norte — issued a rare joint statement in an attempt to dispel myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine with the overarching message that the vaccines are safe, effective and necessary. Did it move the needle? Hard to tell.
Just last week, Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, penned a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, so confident in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines that it was urging the agency to open up authorization of the vaccines for children under the age of 12 "as soon as possible." The nonprofit represents more than 67,000 doctors across the nation who have dedicated their professional lives to the well-being of our children and has seen enough to believe the vaccines are safe, effective and necessary for everyone 5 and older. Will it move the needle? Hard to tell, but doubtful.
The truth is the "scientific" verdict has been in for a long time now. It says that while there are unknowns about the long-term impacts of the vaccines, they pale in comparison to the known immediate risks and potential long-term complications of COVID-19. The body of evidence supporting that verdict grows almost daily. But it isn't moving the needle here.
So what will?
It's hard to say. There's likely no one silver bullet but, instead, a part for each of us to play.
First, we need to understand the very real barriers that are preventing some from getting vaccinated and work to remove them. That means employers giving employees paid time off to get their shots and sick pay if they should experience side effects that keep them off the job for a day or two. It means co-workers agreeing to cover each other's shifts if it helps get someone vaccinated and inches that needle along. It means Public Health and nonprofits continuing to find ways to bring people to clinics and clinics to people.
We also urge all local doctors, elected officials and community leaders to speak up, not to tell people what to do but to tell them what you did and why. Post your stories to social media, record a video and send it to your patients, talk directly to the people who count on you for care or look to you to solve problems. You have a relationship with them in a way the CDC does not. Maybe you will nudge the needle.
As we think this week's cover story attests, this new effort also means all of us talking to and listening to our neighbors, telling our stories and hearing theirs. Jonathan Weltsch didn't believe in COVID or the vaccine, but a COVID-induced brush with death has left him wishing he'd made different choices and hoping he can now help others avoid his experience.
Listen to him.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor and is fully vaccinated. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.
Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor and is fully vaccinated. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.