Frontline Vaccination

Equity and Misinformation on COVID Vaccination

Let’s face it. At the moment, COVID vaccination is a mess. Anti-vaxxers briefly shut down a vaccination site at Dodgers Stadium yesterday. “Save your soul, turn back now,” said their placards. Nonetheless, millions are desperate to get the vaccine. But demand vastly outstrips supply for now. So disparities are popping up as people with power, privilege, and connections find ways to get the vaccine first. Meanwhile, misinformation is creeping into messaging about COVID vaccination.

Unfortunately, sometimes that misinformation comes from experts who might mean well, but should know better.

Misleading Messages About Obesity and the Vaccines

Make no mistake, obesity is a health condition that makes outcomes worse when someone gets COVID-19. For that reason, it’s one of the medical conditions CDC recommends for consideration in giving a person priority access to a vaccine. It is also a condition that adds to the extra risk from COVID-19 for Black and Hispanic communities.

However, as we’ve mentioned before, available data tells us that the approved COVID vaccines appear to work just as well for people with obesity as they do for anyone else. So we cannot understand why both media and a few health science professionals persist in promoting messages to the contrary. A new perspective paper by Matthew Townsend et al explains why this is an ethical problem in Obesity this week:

“Speculation about variable effectiveness of COVID‐19 vaccines in obesity likely increases vaccine hesitancy among individuals with obesity, who face not only a higher risk of severe outcomes from COVID‐19 but also weight stigma which reduces healthcare engagement at baseline. Clinical and public health messaging must be data‐driven, transparent, and sensitive to these biological and sociological vulnerabilities.”

Disparities in Vaccination

Already we are seeing disparities in vaccination. In Philadelphia, for example, Black people are 40 percent of the population. But they are only 14 percent of the people who have received vaccines. Available data in other parts of the country paint a similar picture for both Black and Hispanic communities. This is manifestly unjust because social, economic, and employment factors put these communities at much higher risk for COVID infections and bad outcomes for those infections.

Misinformation in Public Health

UNC’s Zeynep Tufekci describes how some of the confusion and chaos we’re seeing in response to COVID-19 can be traced to flawed public health messaging:

“We have vaccines that are better than anything we had hoped for – basically almost complete elimination of severe disease. Instead of celebrating this – because life is going to get back to normal when enough of us are vaccinated – it’s full of headlines warning people about all the short term limits.

“A lot of anti-vaxxers have latched onto this, saying if the vaccines are so good, why are there so many articles warning you nothing is going to change.”

In short, we should not be surprised by public confusion and hesitancy to get the vaccine. The messages we are sending into the media are mixed. So the public response is mixed. And the people who need vaccination the most are not getting it.

Click here and here for more on disparities in vaccine distribution. For the new paper by Townsend et al, click here. And finally, for an informative interview with Zeynep Tufekci on confused COVID messaging, click here.

Frontline Vaccination, photograph © MTA Photos / flickr

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January 31, 2021