Skeptical. Leery. Wary. Mistrustful.
Wade Norwood knows the words that describe many people’s feelings about COVID-19 vaccines. He’s recited them.
“I understand this doubt first hand,” said the chief executive officer of Common Ground Health, the regional health planning agency. “These are also mine.”
Norwood has said that before he gets in line or encourages others to do so, there must be full transparency about how the vaccines were developed and facts about their safety and how well they work. “We must respect people’s concerns and respond to their objections. You earn people’s trust by being trustworthy.”
He has the opportunity to make sure people get the information they need to make their decision.
Norwood was named to the Monroe County COVID-19 vaccination task force, which is developing public education about the vaccines and planning equitable distribution for when they become widely available. Currently, only one vaccine is being distributed and that is going to health care workers, residents and workers in long-term care facilities and emergency services personnel. Mass distribution is not expected for several months – perhaps not until summer.
“We have the time to do the organizing and we have the time to hear your concern and we have the time to address that concern,” Norwood said during a news conference Dec. 16 in which County Executive Adam Bello announced the task force.
People can send their questions about the vaccine to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The task force also includes Dr. Nancy Bennett, founder and director of the Center for Community Health & Prevention and former deputy director of the Monroe County Department of Public Health. Norwood and Bennett will work with Bello and Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Michael Mendoza.
The actual plan for education about the vaccine and communication about its distribution is being developed, but the point is to foster collaboration and coordination among organizations already doing some of the work.
Bello said the task force will be guided by principles of equity, fairness and transparency in how it gathers and dispenses information. Bello holds weekly news conferences about the rate and effects of COVID-19 in the community. While all now have an American Sign Language interpreter, this was one of the rare ones that was translated into Spanish.
Here is a summary of key points from the news conference:
Identifying concerns: Norwood said people are the experts, and so people would be asked to share what worries them. He said many avenues for getting questions and providing answers exist – such as churches, barber shops and salons and community organizations. All of them would be part of the education and communication effort. He said people remain dismissive of the effects of COVID-19 even as he said the illness may affect cognition and the heart.
“We need to be concerned about the disease and how we stop its spread so we don’t have our loved ones — my other, my sister, my children – dying,” he said. “That’s what we’re dealing with here. If God and science have graced us with a vaccine, how do we use our hearts and our head to make sure that vaccine is available equitably to everyone and we all take advantage of it so we can still be here next year.”
Vaccine distribution: State and federal health officials have developed a tiered system for distribution. Bennett said it’s too soon to say how quickly vaccine will be distributed according to that system and then available to the general public – adults with no underlying health conditions that would increase their risk for complications from COVID-19. While there are questions about the priorities within each tier, Bello stated several times that vaccine would be distributed equitably as it became available.
Mandating that people get the vaccine: The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is allowed under the Food and Drug Administration power to grant emergency use authorization. A vaccine from Moderna is poised to get the same authorization. Vaccines given emergency use authorization cannot be required, Mendoza said. He said his goal is to educate people so they understand and accept the importance of the vaccine in helping everyone.
Mendoza received his first dose of the vaccine Dec. 16. He is with Highland Family Medicine in the UR Medicine system and was randomly selected among providers.
The issue of mandating the COVID-19 vaccine has become a flashpoint as the spread of cases threatens shutdowns in many areas. City Council member Jose Peo posted on his Facebook page links to an article about a propose bill in the state legislature and a scheduled march Jan. 1 organized by Save Rochester — Black Lives Matter to protest a mandate. Peo noted in his post that he was not against vaccines but opposed a requirement for the COVID vaccine.
City Council President Loretta Scott released a statement regarding the vaccine:
“We are in the midst of the most devastating global pandemic of our lifetimes; we are seeing daily increases in COVID-19 positive diagnoses throughout the City of Rochester and Monroe County, and a staggering number of people have died from this terrible disease. Many of us have spent most of 2020 in our homes, away from our friends and loved ones, but there is hope; we have a vaccine on the way.
“I am aware of the dangerous misinformation related to the vaccine that has been shared by people, including one of my own colleagues. I want to appeal to those in our community to listen to the experts, those in the medical field with the knowledge and experience. … As elected officials, we have the immense privilege of serving and representing the people who voted for us and I take that seriously. I want to encourage everyone to keep pushing forward because we are getting closer to normal every day. Keep wearing your masks, maintaining your distance from others, protecting your circle, and when you can, get the vaccine. If you have questions, ask your doctor or medical professionals, not those who think they know better on Facebook.”