'Vaccine alarmism': Is ambiguous public messaging hindering COVID-19 vaccination rates?

With warnings of potential problems and risks, current public messaging on COVID-19 vaccination efforts may be fanning the flames of pre-existing anti-vaccine misinformation and anxiety, according to a Feb. 19 New York Times report.

Research has shown that a full dose of the vaccine, with the appropriate waiting period after the second shot, effectively stamps out the risk of COVID-19 death, nearly eliminates the risk of hospitalization and significantly reduces a person's ability of infecting someone else, the publication reports.

However, these messages have often been interpreted as the vaccines aren't 100 percent effective and vaccinated people may still be contagious, according to Kate Grabowski, PhD, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. She told the Times that she has heard from relatives about their friends and co-workers who choose not to get the vaccine because they keep hearing that even vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 and pass it onto others.

"Over and over again, I see statements that in theory one could be infected and spread the virus even after being fully vaccinated," Rebecca Wurtz, MD, health policy and management associate professor at University of Minnesota, said. "Is the ambiguous messaging contributing to ambivalent feelings about vaccination? Yes, no question."

Abraar Karan, MD, internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said the messaging has a "somewhat paternalistic" quality, as if some experts don't trust people to understand that the vaccines make a significant difference and that there are still unanswered questions. This has lent public messages to "err on the side of alarmism," according to the report.

To combat this idea of vaccine alarmism, Dr. Grabowski told the Times that public messaging about vaccines should be: "They're safe. They're highly effective against serious disease. And the emerging evidence about infectiousness looks really good," she said. "If you have access to a vaccine and you're eligible, you should get it."


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