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Vaccine resisters could be roadblock to herd immunity in Sonoma County

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

For months, public health officials and doctors have urged everyone to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as soon as they can. For at least that long, most Americans have clamored to do just that. And yet nearly four months after the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine went into the arm of someone who wasn’t part of a clinical trial, there are holdouts — as many as 23% of the population in North Bay counties, including Sonoma, according to a recent survey conducted by the Bay Area Council.

Due to the spread of coronavirus variants, officials now believe herd immunity won’t be achieved until 75-80% of the population is immunized. But public hesitancy to receive the vaccine could be a barrier to getting there.

While the reason people are getting vaccinated is always roughly the same, the explanations for not getting vaccinated are nearly as varied as the people you ask. Those reasons range from political leanings to religious beliefs, from a basic lack of time and transportation to concerns over the speed with which vaccines were brought to market, from a general mistrust of vaccines to skepticism about the medical profession.

“I don’t blame people,” said Dr. Brian Prystowsky, a Sutter Health pediatrician who is adamantly pro-vaccine. “This has just been a scary year. People are afraid of everything associated with the coronavirus. They’re afraid of the virus, they’re afraid of the vaccine, they’re afraid of losing their job, of not paying their rent. People are overwhelmed right now.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that all vaccine hesitancy is motivated primarily by fear.

“People tend to ask me for my opinions,” Dan Bartholome said. “They’re usually very well thought out and have reason behind them.”

That’s the approach Bartholome took in deciding on a coronavirus vaccination. He has a generally favorable opinion of Donald Trump, but politics did not play into his thinking, he said. (The Bay Area Council survey revealed 31% of Republicans are reluctant to get vaccinated, vs. just 7% of Democrats.) He is not anti-science; Bartholome teaches math and public safety at Elsie Allen High School. Yet he has harbored doubts about the safety of these vaccines.

“What had me a little concerned about it, was this really as safe as it’s supposed to be?” Bartholome said. “It had to do with what I’ve been hearing from several doctors.”

Fear of side effects, long-term consequences

To be sure, some Sonoma County residents are more predisposed to reject a vaccination than Bartholome.

Theresa Roach Melia is convinced that vaccines generally are unproven to be effective against most childhood diseases and, more important, contain harmful ingredients that can cause serious autoimmune syndromes and medical issues such as cancer, arthritis, autism and allergies. She believes requirements that children must be vaccinated to attend school are authoritarian. And she extends those thoughts to the publicly championed Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“There is an ongoing, unintentional crime against humanity, in the guise of trustworthy medical practice,” said Melia, who lives in west Sonoma County. “Arrogance, hubris, poor education, misplaced trust and censorship all conspire to allow this crime.”

Melia cited numerous documents to support her claims, including books by Robert Mendelsohn, Mayer Eisenstein and Tom Cowan, all of them doctors. Medical professionals who combat the “anti-vaxxer” movement would consider their theories and arguments thoroughly debunked. Cowan relinquished his California medical license two months ago. But Melia trusts her sources more than mainstream health practitioners.

She isn’t alone in adopting a cynical view toward Western medicine.

Sean, who lives in Graton, certainly is unconvinced. He spoke to The Press Democrat but asked that his last name be omitted, fearing he’d be targeted as an anti-vaxxer.

Sean, a Bernie Sanders Democrat, said some might describe him as an “alternative health nut.” He worked as a hospital orderly years ago, and the experience soured him on the medical profession. He saw too many well-intentioned screw-ups, he said, to treat doctors as infallible. And he has reservations about the coronavirus vaccines, especially Pfizer and Moderna, which are messenger-RNA vaccines that, in Sean’s view, are a form of subtle genetic modification.

“It may have been oversold as 100% effective and 100% safe,” he said. “Because we don’t want to get into nuances. Because the public can’t deal with nuance. So we’ve got to be out there rah-rah-rah-ing it.”

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Other immunization doubters have more specific concerns about the currently available coronavirus vaccines. Like Bartholome.

His questions formed after he read stories or watched videos by several doctors who described research on previous coronaviruses like those known as SARS and MERS. During lab research for those viruses, Bartholome said he learned, a significant percentage of the animal subjects died when the vaccine was reintroduced several months later.

So he held off, even as most of his colleagues at Elsie Allen happily received first and second doses.

Gary McClernan wasn’t thrilled about the speed with which the current coronavirus vaccines got FDA authorization and went into circulation. That process took months; for most vaccines, it has taken years.

Mostly, though, McClernan would describe his reasons for holding out as pragmatic. “I’m 69 years old,” he said. “I’ve been retired four years. I live remotely in Kenwood, out of town. With the shutdown, I don’t have all that much contact with people.”

McClernan scans the updated virus numbers in The Press Democrat each day. He calculates that he has a 6% of contracting the coronavirus, and a 0.06% chance of dying from it.

“I'll take my known chances versus the unknown chances associated with taking an experimental vaccine,” McClernan said.

‘No one has died from the vaccine’

Prystowsky, the Sutter doctor, has heard most of these complaints in his work as a vaccinator. He is as convinced as ever about the vaccines’ efficacy. They were not rushed to market, he said, but rather piggybacked on trials dating back to the first SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003. And the evidence so far is that they are incredibly safe.

“Four-hundred million people have gotten the vaccine,” Prystowsky said. “Five-hundred thousand have died from the disease, and no one has died from the vaccine. If you were a gambler in Vegas and you calculated which is more likely to do you harm, which way would you bet?”

Prystowsky knows he and other doctors must overcome barriers to acceptance.

“Not everyone trusts medical professionals, and I don’t blame them. Especially people of color,” he said. “Why would they trust a government that’s coming after them with ICE, or trust medical professionals who haven’t always looked after their health?”

That may be a factor in Sonoma County, according to Herman J. Hernandez, who works with Los Cien and other Latino advocacy groups, mostly in the Russian River area. He heard from low-wage workers who simply didn’t want to take the time to schedule an appointment. More troubling, Hernandez’s wife, Guillermina, talked to multiple Latino families who didn’t want to get shots because they had heard the vaccine was made using aborted fetuses.

That has become a confoundingly widespread vaccination hurdle — especially among devout Catholics, following a negative statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s true that research into the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used fetal cell lines first developed in the 1980s, but none of that material ends up in the vials.

The Hernandezes’ strategy when faced with a religious objector? One, encourage them to talk about it one-on-one with a doctor. Two, remind them Pope Francis was vaccinated Jan. 14.

Prystowsky also prefers a nonjudgmental, noncombative approach to changing minds.

“We’re actually aligning on an intention of safety,” he said. “So you’re afraid the vaccine isn’t safe, and I’m afraid the virus isn’t safe. I think that’s an important starting point for trust. I don’t rush people when they feel scared. You can’t answer fear with data. It’s not going to help.”

The fact is, people do change their minds about getting vaccinated. Bartholome is likely to end up in that camp. He had been steadfastly resistant. Then a fellow teacher, Alan Petty, began reminding Bartholome he may soon be in a classroom full of high school students, some of them possibly carriers of the virus. Finally he asked himself, if he gets the flu vaccine every year, why not this one?

Bartholome still hasn’t gotten his first shot, but he now believes he will — one tiny step, perhaps, on the road to herd immunity.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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