While millions of vaccines are going into arms across the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a flurry of misinformation about vaccine efficacy and the disease itself also is spreading. At colleges and schools of pharmacy, faculty, students and staff are working in clinics, stadiums and arenas, or partnering with pharmacies and physicians to administer vaccines and manage workloads. Some schools are taking it a step further, combating the naysayers touting fictions that are swirling around the virus and the vaccines, using YouTube, Instagram or other social media to amplify the message.
While scientists strongly argue that the vaccines approved for distribution by the Food and Drug Administration are highly effective—and cannot cause COVID-19 because they don’t contain active viruses—there are still many doubters, who are against vaccines generally because of their own political or religious beliefs or because they do not trust the science. Some who are hesitant about taking the vaccine are unsure of the impacts but are still open to the idea that the vaccines are effective.
At the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, students wanted to take charge to educate the vaccine hesitant. Dr. C. Michael White, department head and distinguished professor of pharmacy practice, initiated ideas to spread the word about the importance of vaccines, and students jumped in, discussing social platforms to use and how to find effective messages to counter the arguments from the anti-vaccine population.
Student pharmacists worked to create a video series—each one about two to three minutes long—about different elements of the vaccines, such as their chemistry and impacts, focusing on issues that many people would have questions about, said Dr. Diana M. Sobieraj, associate professor. “This was a great example of real life in front of their eyes, and how to use and search for credible information to counter that. We should use this approach for other vaccinations at opportunities in the future,” she said.
Among the students’ concerns: Minority and non-English speaking communities are confronted with an array of misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines, prompting many people in those communities to decline the opportunity to get vaccinated. Study after study reveals that Black and Hispanic populations are receiving fewer vaccinations compared to White populations, as well as having higher incidences of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Sobieraj noted that the YouTube and social media presentations emphasize the importance of reaching out to multiracial groups.
Students focused their attention on the need for outreach to diverse communities; their videos were recorded in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Polish. “When we released the videos, the timing was perfect,” Sobieraj said. YouTube and social media were the “main mechanisms for disseminating the information, and that is still evolving.” The students engaged in questions and answers with their audiences. “They received a lot of appreciation from patients. The students also shared that information with family and friends to provide accurate and unbiased information.”
Questions and Answers
Will the vaccine give me COVID-19? Can the COVID-19 vaccine cause infertility? In a smooth delivery on YouTube, UConn School of Pharmacy student Leanne Varga discussed the issues surrounding the vaccines and COVID-19. “Some people have been wondering if you will test positive for COVID-19 after receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines,” she said. “I’m here to answer your questions today.”
Varga was candid about the positive impact of the vaccines against COVID-19. “It will rapidly attack and reduce the chances that you will get the disease,” she said. “It doesn’t contain live viruses; the vaccine will not cause you to test positive for COVID-19. The great news is that within a few weeks of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, it is more than 90 percent likely that you will not contract COVID-19.”
“The vaccines are not optimally effective after the first dose,” she added. “It takes time for the body to create that optimal immune response after receiving the second dose. There is a small chance you can still contract COVID-19.” Varga emphasized that the information presented by student pharmacists was based on the COVID-19 vaccine literature, “to help you make an informed decision.” As for the myth that the vaccines cause infertility, that is indeed just a myth.
“It was a team effort in creating the script,” Sobieraj said. “The effort was not only to serve the public but also to be creative in a way to allow students to earn their curriculum requirement.”
The Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy also tapped into social media to relay the importance of people getting vaccinated and sorting fact from fiction. “A lot of students are working in vaccine clinics and helping people who want to get vaccinated,” said Dr. David Sanchez, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the college, located 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. “One group is using social media infographics. There are truths and myths about COVID-19. The younger students are good at social media interactions and with that engagement” about the uncertainties surrounding the vaccines, he said.