Vaccine resisters could be roadblock to herd immunity in Sonoma County
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.”