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Georgia officials battle COVID-19 vaccine wariness

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Georgia officials battle COVID-19 vaccine wariness

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Photo provided by Emory University
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By Patrick Saunders, contributor 

Atlanta, GA — The arrival of the first batch of COVID-19 vaccine doses in Georgia was met with much relief last week, but a large chunk of the population — including some of the most vulnerable to the pandemic — is unwilling to take it.

Some 40 percent of Americans would not take the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Gallup poll from November. And Georgia residents share that wariness, according to Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“Many, many people are hesitant about vaccines in this state,” Toomey said at a Dec. 8 press conference. “I think that’s the challenge that we have because we have to reassure everyone that this vaccine is safe, effective and there’s good science behind it.”

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The DPH is working on a comprehensive communication plan to address the challenge, according to spokesperson Nancy Nydam.

“DPH has begun general messaging around safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and we continue discussions internally, with health districts and with external partners on more targeted communications as the vaccine rolls out in phases to various groups based on [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] guidance and recommendations,” she told Decaturish.

There are stark differences on the issue depending on political persuasion, with only half of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats in the U.S. willing to get the vaccine, according to Gallup. The most common reasons poll respondents listed for not getting it were concerns about a rushed timeline, wanting to wait to confirm it’s safe, a general distrust of vaccines and wanting to wait to see how effective it is.

Vaccine skepticism is acutely felt though among Black Americans — a group disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 42 percent of Blacks would get it, compared to 61 percent of whites, 63 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of Asian-Americans.

President Barack Obama noted that distrust in an interview with Sirius XM earlier this month. He cited the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a 40-year study ending in 1972 in which poor, Black sharecroppers were told they were getting free healthcare from the federal government, but instead were being monitored to study the progression of untreated syphilis. More than 100 participants died as a result.

“I understand you know historically — everything dating back all the way to the Tuskegee experiments and so forth — why the African-American community would have some skepticism,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is, is that vaccines are why we don’t have polio anymore, the reason why we don’t have a whole bunch of kids dying from measles and smallpox and diseases that used to decimate entire populations and communities.”

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DeKalb Board of Health Director Sandra Ford told Decaturish she is “very concerned” that vulnerable populations in the county that need the vaccine most will be afraid to take it.

DPH’s messaging on the issue will address vaccine wariness among Blacks specifically, according to Toomey.

“We really want to ensure that our communications messages focus on the concerns and the good science there that we feel very confident that these vaccines will work, are safe and are important to ensure the safety of all Georgians at this time,” she said.

“I can say with great enthusiasm that I can’t wait to be vaccinated. I’m so looking forward to that opportunity and I hope that we can convey that same to people throughout Georgia,” she added.

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