NEW JERSEY: Dr Marc Feingold, a primary care doctor in Manalapan, has been spending plenty of time with his patients in recent weeks trying to debunk misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine, falsehoods heard everywhere from Facebook and the TV networks to New Jersey radio, including Bill Spadea's popular New Jersey morning-drive talk show.
Does the vaccine cause infertility? (No.) Is it experimental? (No). Does it work? (Yes, it is highly effective in preventing serious illness and death.) And so on, Feingold responds to the false assertions, hoping he lands on a message that will convince the unvaccinated to get a shot.
"They always have questions, and they don't know who to believe," Feingold said. "They're getting so much information from so many different sources. So (misinformation) is very, very common."
New Jersey health care providers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the barrage of misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine, which they say has put lives at risk. Spadea, with one of the largest megaphones in New Jersey, has called for outright defiance, urging listeners to skip the vaccine.
"Misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine is a serious public health threat," said Regina Foley, Hackensack Meridian’s senior vice president integration/transformation who managed the vaccine rollout across the network. "The vaccines are safe and highly effective and our best shot at defeating this pandemic once and for all, saving lives and returning to normal."
The message, however, isn't universally taking hold.
Sticking with misinformation
Opinions about the vaccine have been split between political parties. A poll last month by Kaiser Family Foundation found counties that voted for Democrat President Joe Biden had a 46.7% vaccination rate, while counties that voted for Republican President Donald Trump had a 35% vaccination rate.
The trend is playing out at the Shore, a Republican stronghold. In Monmouth County, 53.5% of the total population is vaccinated. In Ocean County, only 43% of the population is vaccinated.
Both have lower vaccination rates than blue-state New Jersey, where more than 58% of the population is vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The tide may be changing.
In recent weeks, in the face of the surging delta variant, some Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators in major media outlets have shifted gears and begun to encourage people to get vaccines.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently bought radio ads in his home state of Kentucky to urge people to get vaccinated and "take advantage of this miracle". And influential conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity recently told his viewers that it "absolutely makes sense for most Americans to get vaccinated".
But a high-profile contrarian amplifies a different message in New Jersey.
Spadea hosts a morning talk show for four hours during the week on NJ 101.5 FM, the highest-rated radio station in Monmouth and Ocean counties, where, the CDC said, Covid-19 cases have begun to increase faster than most other parts of the state.
With a Nielsen rating of 8.8 this spring in Monmouth and Ocean, Spadea's radio station was twice as popular as the next-largest station, according to Nielsen Holdings, a company that measures ratings.
Spadea's biography on 101.5 notes that he is a media personality, political strategist and real estate executive. He doesn't have a medical background, but he calls himself the "superspreader of truth". Recent comments cast doubt on that claim.
During a Facebook Live show July 14, he prematurely told viewers that the delta variant wasn't deadly. He added that he didn't need the vaccine because at 52, he is relatively young and in good shape. He urged his listeners to follow his lead.
Data has shown the virus has hit older cohorts hardest, but Gen X isn't immune. Nationwide, 96,318 people ages 50 to 64 have died due to Covid-19, according to the CDC.
On his show and Twitter site, Spadea has:
– Compared Covid to a cold or flu. The virus has killed upward of 26,000 New Jerseyans, claiming nearly 20 times more lives than the flu did in 2019, according to state data.
– Called the vaccine experimental. While the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use a new technology, health experts say they have been in development for years, went through rigorous clinical trials, and were considered safe and effective by the US Food and Drug Administration.
– Suggested the vaccines don't work. A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Pfizer's BioNTech vaccine was 93% effective against the alpha variant and 88% effective against the delta variant. And the shot has prevented the vast majority of people fully vaccinated from being hospitalized.
– Rejected the idea of vaccinating children. The vaccine has been approved for children ages 12 and higher. Children have been less likely to get the virus or suffer its most serious effects, but health experts say most should still get the shot. They note Covid has been deadlier than other pediatric diseases, and the delta variant is highly transmissable, putting children at more risk.
Spadea also has met New Jersey's attempt to save lives through the vaccine with outrage, saying it is infringing on liberty on the level of Nazi Germany and is merely a plan to line the pockets of the elite.
"Now is the time for you to defy the elite powers in Trenton," Spadea wrote on July 18. "Resist the jab."
NJ 101.5 aired a disclaimer during Spadea's show saying comments by hosts, callers and guests aren't those of the station; its owner, Townsquare Media; or advertisers.
Spadea didn't respond to emails seeking comment.
Putting public at risk
Doctors say misinformation among their patients is widespread.
Dr Roger Thompson, a primary care doctor in Middletown, said he routinely hears patients recite wrong information they have come across either from family members or media outlets, from young women worried that it causes infertility to people of all ages saying they didn't get the shot because they heard it was rushed.
Thompson tells them what he knows: Covid is a new disease and the shot is a new vaccine and no one knows the long-term effects.
But "we can tell you that it's probably been used more than any other vaccine in the world with limited problems", Thompson said. "And this is our only chance of really fighting this, and the recent hospitalisation numbers support that."
Health providers say vaccine misinformation is putting the public at risk.
Not that vaccines don't have their drawbacks. In some cases, people have had temporary side effects from the shot. And in Ocean County, at least, about 400 out of 273,000 fully vaccinated residents, or less than 0.2%, were diagnosed with Covid-19.
Still, the so-called "breakthrough" cases have been largely mild; more than 97% of people hospitalised in New Jersey with Covid-19 are unvaccinated, Dr Daniel Varga, chief physician executive for Hackensack Meridian Health, said.
"I think we're all kind of frustrated," said Dr. Meg Fisher, director of clinical and academic excellence at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch. "It's a shame that we have three vaccines that are safe and effective and that we unfortunately have an ongoing pandemic because we just can't get enough people immunized."
How to reach holdouts
Health providers have a tall order to reach the holdouts, experts said.
Even before the pandemic, many Americans were deeply distrustful of the government and the media, and they had access to endless information through the Internet and social media sites that could validate their suspicions.
Now, the medical profession is scrambling to counteract a ceaseless news cycle clouding the waters for consumers who traditionally respond best to simple, consistent messages, said Yonaira Rivera, a Rutgers University communication professor.
"For people who already don't trust those political and social institutions, it is very difficult to convince them to get vaccinated, that it's necessary," said Katherine Ognyanova, also a communication professor at Rutgers University.
Health providers seem to have settled on a strategy to combat misinformation: face-to-face contact with trusted sources that can begin to pierce what amounts to an echo chamber.
The New Jersey Hospital Association, a trade group, has turned to micro-influencers such as hair stylists Ndale Rodriguez and Anny Quesada of Somerville to try to build confidence in the vaccine.
Rodriguez, 28, and Quesada, 27, between them have upward of 30,000 Instagram followers and a clientele that often treats them as friends and therapists. They hear no shortage of conspiracy theories about the vaccine from their customers.
Among them: The vaccines have microchips that the government uses to track people.
They hear their customers out before telling them they have been vaccinated without any problems. And they point to reliable vaccine information and encourage their customers to read it.
"It'll help save a lot of people," Quesada said she tells them.
There still is a chance to sway the holdouts, experts said.
Consumers still give doctors and nurses high marks for honesty and ethics, according to a Gallup poll, which should give experts like Marc Feingold hope.
The medical director of Consensus Health, a physician group, Feingold doesn't have a talk radio show, and his social media presence is modest. It leaves as his only platform his office examination room, where he sees 20 patients a day.
He said his patients know by now how much he harps on them to get a flu shot. The Covid vaccine should be no different, he said.
"What I usually try and do is figure out what their hesitancy is," Feingold said. "And maybe try and give them a little bit more information about why what they think may or may not be correct. And hopefully get them to move a little bit one step closer to eventually getting the vaccine." – Asbury Park Press/Tribune News Service
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