The COVID-19 pandemic has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated, Dr. Fredric Weinbaum, the chief medical officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, told attendees of a virtual Express Sessions forum last week intended to the explore the reasons why some people remain hesitant to be inoculated against the disease, and to dispel some myths about the vaccine.
Dr. Jeffrey Zilberstein, the medical director at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, took the statement a step further, proclaiming that those suffering the most severe effects of COVID were doing so because they chose not to get vaccinated.
“At this point, the disease of COVID is a disease of choice,” he said. “And it’s the choice to not get vaccinated. And so the vast majority of those who are vaccinated at present are protected from the disease. They’re not necessarily protected from becoming infected, but they’re protected from the disease.”
The physicians were panelists at the virtual Express Sessions event, “Getting The Facts On The COVID Vaccine,” held via the Zoom platform on Thursday, August 12. Other panelists included: Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center Executive Director Bonnie Cannon; Christine L. Kippley, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Peconic Bay Medical Center; Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Hospital; OLA of Eastern Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez; East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc; and Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren.
The forum was moderated by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.
Mr. Shaw explained that various reports indicated that people who were hesitant to get vaccinated seemed to be looking for “good information that they can count on” to help make their decision. “So we thought we would pull together a panel of medical experts and local leaders to try and answer some of those questions for the folks who are vaccine hesitant,” he said.
Mr. Van Scoyoc agreed, noting that there’s been “a great deal of misinformation going around on the internet and by word of mouth.”
“So I think that’s part of what we really need to focus on,” he said. “Help people understand the science behind the vaccines, why they work, how they work and that they’re safe. I mean, we know at this point I think over 90 percent of all deaths related to COVID at this point are with the unvaccinated. So that should be a great concern to anybody who’s not vaccinated.”
Additionally, Ms. Perez also noted that some people have become hesitant as they face losing time from work to get vaccinated or fear a negative reaction from the vaccine that would cause them to lose income in the busy summer season. Those people may be “gambling,” she said, that they can get through the season without contracting the coronavirus before getting vaccinated once summer is over.
Ms. Cannon noted that the Black and Brown community has a much lower vaccination rate than other segments of Suffolk County or the East End, based in part on a mistrust of authorities based on tragic historical occurrences, making it critical for community based organizations to conduct “door-to-door” outreach to educate that segment of the community.
First and foremost, Dr. Weinbaum said, is that people need to understand that the vaccines are safe. “None of us who have gotten vaccinated have developed a horn or a third eye or are growing an extra finger or anything,” he said. “So the facts are what we need to continue to provide to people.”
Ms. Kippley noted that some hesitancy comes from people who have had COVID already and believe that they now have the antibodies to protect them from getting it again — a belief that she said is not true.
“We’ve found that if you’ve had COVID, you could get it again,” she said. “Also, if you get the vaccination, if you should get exposed again, your symptoms will be much less. So it does provide actually a super extra boost if you’ve had COVID and get the vaccine.”
Other people may have been exposed to COVID, but never got sick, she said, leading them to believe that they won’t get sick if they are exposed in the future — which she likened to driving without a seatbelt.
“I think that one response to trauma is denial,” she said, noting that people have been through a lot during the past 18 months and everyone has been traumatized to an extent. “And I just worry that people, their response to everything going on, it’s just, ‘I’m going to be fine. And I’m not going to worry about getting the vaccine,’ but it’s not a rational response.”
Dr. Nachman noted that the medical and scientific communities’ message about getting vaccinated is being overshadowed by the immense wall of inaccurate information on social media. She urged forum participants to seek the advice of medical professionals they know and trust.
“Please go to the expert of your child, the expert in your care,” she said. “Your physician knows your cardiac history, your diabetes history. They’re going to not steer you wrong because they want to keep you as a patient. They want to keep you well and healthy and out of the hospital. So why would you be listening to someone who actually doesn’t know you at all? Why would you take their medical advice? You don’t even know their credentials.”
When considering whether to get a vaccine, people should also be aware of the effect that a mutating, surging virus has on the community as a whole, but also on the medical infrastructure, Dr. Weinbaum said. He noted that if a hospital is full of COVID patients, and critical care units are focusing on their treatment, other patients, who don’t have COVID, may suffer.
“What happens to the next person who’s in an urgent care center with a heart attack?” he asked “I mean, you’re not only saving your life, but you’re saving the lives of people not only from COVID that you might give them, but also from heart attacks and strokes.”
Dr. Zilberstein also noted that people concerned about possible unknown long-term effects of the vaccine should also consider the known long-term effects of COVID.
“COVID disease has very well-known long-term ramifications,” he said. “So those of us who lose our smell once we develop COVID disease, there’s a problem that went into the brain. So, again, these are things that we do know the problems associated with COVID disease. And we know thus far that there haven’t been significant issues with long-term problems with administration and getting the vaccine.”
As for people who distrust the science being presented regarding the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and proclaim that they want to do their own research, Dr. Zilberstein cautioned that there is a lot of misinformation out there and those people should look at sources they can trust.
“So that’s why when people say I have to do my own research,” he said, “I have a challenging time trying to come up with an answer to that because not everybody is equipped to do the same level of research as the FDA and the CDC and all of the scientists that have been associated with this.”
And as for people who point to breakthrough infections as evidence of flaws with the vaccines, Ms. Kippley noted that they were never proclaimed to be 100 percent effective. That being said, if a vaccinated person does contract the disease, it is guaranteed that they will not suffer the harshest effects.
“I think all of us have said that if you are vaccinated and you should be one of those breakthrough cases, which again, they’ve been transparent from the beginning, is going to be a much milder case,” she said. “And there’s almost 100 percent chance that you will not be hospitalized. I mean, that’s been very clear. So I’ve known people that have had these breakthrough cases, and they really were quite mild.”