LISTEN: Alaska’s top doctor says misinformation hurts vaccination effort

A woman wearing scrubs and a face mask receives a shot from a man in scrubs and a mask.
Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, is vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dr. Michael Alter, Emergency Medicine Specialist at Mat-su Regional Medical Center on Dec. 18. (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Health officials want Alaskans to know COVID-19 vaccines have not killed anyone in the state — or in the country.

They’re responding to a misleading report this week from conservative blog Alaska Watchman, which posted an article titled “At least five Alaskans died and 111 suffered adverse reactions after COVID vaccines.”

The Watchman article relied on data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, but failed to explain that data doesn’t mean vaccines caused deaths or adverse reactions.

Responding to questions about the report, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said there’s been a lot of misinformation about vaccines. Red herrings about their safety — such as the Watchman report — are not helping the vaccination effort.

LISTEN HERE:

Dr. Anne Zink: Even if you have someone who’s on hospice and expected to die, after they’ve gotten vaccinated, if they do pass away, we’ve asked the CDC, ‘Do you want someone like that to be reported into their system?’ And they say, ‘Absolutely.’ They want anyone who has died post-vaccine for any reason to be put in.

You can see this in the trials as well: For example, in the trials, one person was struck by lightning. It’s reported in the trial data. It doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused them to be struck by lightning, they just want to look for any potential reaction and any potential side effect.

Then what the CDC does is look at the baseline rates of those arrhythmias, of lightning strikes, and see if there’s a difference between people who were vaccinated and not vaccinated to determine if that’s a potential risk. All of that VAERS data is on the CDC website, and can be seen by anybody in the public. You can go and take a look at it.

Unfortunately, people are misinterpreting that data as an adverse reaction (to the vaccine), when it’s just humans being humans. It’s a way for us to make sure we’re reporting in data, for the CDC to look at it and make sure there’s no abnormal patterns in it.

Casey Grove: So to be clear, the report that we’re talking about came from this website, The Watchman. For them to report five people have died after getting the vaccine and more than 100 have had adverse reactions — does that set back the vaccination effort, to have that misinformation out there?

AZ: Well, just in the emails that I got, in the time they released it today, there’s a lot of people who emailed me who said, ‘I read this, and I’m really concerned. What does this mean?’

So it takes time. I’m always happy to answer questions, and so is our team, to explain where the data really comes from, and why five people did not die from the vaccine. Five people died after vaccination, but looking through their history, they had multiple underlying health factors, and some of them were actually on hospice and expected to pass away.

It’s important to put the data into context. Unfortunately, if it’s not put into context, it can really scare people from potentially choosing to get a life-saving vaccine that can protect them from a virus that has been ravaging our world, and has been causing incredible loss, both with people getting sick and dying, and unfortunately, the real economic consequences that come with a lot of people being sick and being out, as well. We are all better off, more healthy and well, together. And this vaccine is a strong and useful tool to get there as quickly as possible.

CG: Do you think people will be so worried about it, they just won’t get the vaccine? Are you seeing that already?

AZ: I am worried people won’t get the vaccine because of misinformation. I am concerned by the number of people who are expressing that information — they don’t have the context behind it, and they’re taking that as that five people died from the vaccine itself.

I am concerned that that is not only going to slow down vaccine efforts, but more importantly, for that individual trying to make an individual decision. It’s really important they have the information at hand and in full context to make the best decision for them and their family.

CG: There’s still hundreds of appointments for vaccines available through February, at least here in Southcentral. Why isn’t the state opening up those appointments for teachers or other groups? And are you getting a lot of pushback for that?

AZ: Yes, we are getting a lot of pushback, for sure. We are pausing a bit on this senior level right now. We just really want to make sure those 65 and older, are vaccinated as soon as possible. They are the group that represents just over 10% of the population, but over 70% of the deaths and over 50% of the hospitalizations. It’s been challenging for some of them to navigate the website, the call line, and to know that it’s their turn to get vaccinated.

However, we understand every single day we wait is a day that someone else isn’t getting vaccinated. That looms large on our shoulders. We want to get vaccines out fast, and we want to do it fair.

So we are looking at when we open up the next tiers, overall. We’ve had a bunch of meetings with the communities: Most are telling us that while there’s appointments open, many of them are getting filled up — it’s just taking a bit more time. They have plans for a lot of that vaccine.

We are really trying to give it this week to see how many how many of those appointments are filled. We will be looking at the data next week. And then really making a decision about where we move forward.

CG: When can we anticipate the opening of additional tiers for eligibility?

AZ: I think that mid-February, we’ll be communicating some clarity on the next tiers, as well as sharing the information about what 1C is looking like, so people know what’s up and coming next.

As I think many people are aware, there’s a third vaccine now going through the FDA review process. So we want to see what that looks like — because that will change our March allocation — to see if we can move through more tiers more quickly. I suspect some communities will be opening up additional vaccine sites in February to the beginning part of the next tier. However, I think most communities will be moving into the next tier with the March allocation.

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media. cgrove [at] alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8446 | About Casey

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