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Was Medical Misinformation The Culprit of Low COVID Vax Uptake?

New data indicates that medical misinformation played an outsized role in sowing mistrust in COVID-19 vaccine efficacy.

Medical misinformation, not lapses in patient trust, may have been behind initially low COVID-19 vaccine uptake among Black and Hispanic individuals, according to DePaul University researchers who said these findings could help tailor public health messaging in the future.

The start of the COVID-19 vaccine campaign showed little uptake among Black and Hispanic individuals. Per figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation, vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic people trailed those of White people in the spring of 2020, when the shots first became widely available.

Numerous reports indicated that lower vaccine uptake among populations of color could be linked back to historical distrust in the medical establishment. The US has a grotesque history of mistreating Black and Brown bodies, and even today, experiences of healthcare discrimination and implicit bias have limited trust in medicine.

But this latest data calls that notion into question. In a survey of 109 Black and Hispanic people receiving care at Chicago’s Brothers Health Collective, the DePaul researchers found that prevalent misinformation led to notions that the COVID-19 vaccine was not effective.

Although general mistrust in medicine was linked with vaccine hesitancy, the researchers also stated that patients with misgivings about the vaccine itself were less likely to get the shot. This became particularly apparent in the study’s qualitative component. Open-ended questions showed that patients who did not get the shot were worried about the long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The study’s lead researcher, Joanna Buscemi, said this was indicative of the info-demic plaguing the medical industry today. Buscemi, who is an associate professor of psychology in DePaul’s College of Science and Health, indicated that medical misinformation and inaccurate claims about the COVID-19 vaccine may have led patients to be skeptical of the vaccine’s effectiveness and overall health impact.

“Misinformation is harmful in people’s decision-making about vaccination,” Buscemi said in a statement.

For example, inaccurate coverage about breakthrough cases—plus murky public health messaging claiming the vaccine to be effective—may have dissuaded some from getting the shot.

“We must change the public’s perception of what effectiveness means,” Buscemi asserted. “There is an important difference between preventing disease altogether and preventing the worst outcomes.”

The researchers suggested more community-based public health messaging and patient education. Public health leaders may focus on populations with lower educational attainment, as that was the only sociodemographic factor with a strong link to vaccine hesitancy, the researchers recommended.

“Community-based interventions increase self-efficacy among members which may increase motivation to seek health information,” the researchers wrote in the study’s discussion section. “Actively thwarting the spread of misinformation gives more space for people to find health information that is for them and their community.”

The data also highlighted reasons why patients did get the vaccine. In the study’s qualitative, open-ended response section, participants said they were motivated by the duty to protect themselves and their community from COVID-19 spread.

That could be a good starting point for campaigns for future COVID-19 vaccines or vaccines for other viruses. Public health officials to appeal to people's sense of community and belonging to motivate vaccine uptake, the researchers suggested.

Although this study was completed before COVID-19 boosters became available, Buscemi said the findings should influence future vaccine campaigns like the boosters.

The US is currently staring down an impending twin-demic of both new COVID-19 variants plus the seasonal flu.

Uptake of the COVID-19 bivalent booster is still dismally low, experts have reported, indicating a need for stronger public health messaging. That messaging should be paired with pleas to as the US gears up for a more severe and earlier-than-expected season.

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