Ruby Sigmund, Co-Editor-in-Chief

On April 13, the CDC and the FDA issued a joint statement on the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine, in which they recommended a pause of the vaccine’s use after “six reported U.S. cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot” following these individuals receiving the J&J shot. While these agencies also spoke to the “extreme rar[ity]” of these cases, around 1 in 1 million, media outlets quickly circulated headlines such as “CDC, FDA taking reports of blood clots and J&J Covid-19 vaccine ‘seriously’” and “J&J blood clots: What to know about the potentially dangerous condition”. While many of these articles underscored the low risk of developing blood clots, and some attributed the cause for the recommendation as due to possible mistreatment of the clots by doctors rather than the risk of developing the blood clots themselves, the initial public response resulted from the partially quoted data of cases and deaths presented in bold, instead of the low percentage of clots and deaths overall which are presented farther down in the articles or not at all

The J&J blood clot media cycle is an example of COVID-19 misinformation used to instill concerns over vaccine safety, as “amplifying worrisome data is good for profits [of the media companies],” noted Beth Johnson, an english teacher at Columbia High School (CHS). COVID-19 is a unique case in terms of data amplification as it is both important to share information to the public on the number of deaths, the spread of the virus and vaccination rates while at the same time not creating a culture of fear and fatigue. 

Because of this, COVID-19 news has “turned into a right versus left argument,” said Sadie Springer, ‘24. Springer commented on the detriment of a global health crisis becoming politicized, as she said, “Assuming that you are watching the news station that aligns with your beliefs, you most likely agree with the information being shared and therefore won’t change your opinion about the COVID vaccine.”

Dr. Caroline Radice, a parent to two CHS students and a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, noted that unverified third party sources add to misinformation spread online. However, she said that she is “more concerned with the conspiracies that permeate the social media world and how they affect choices for people not necessarily armed with qualified sources of good accurate information, including professionals in my own field.”

Springer and Dr. Radice’s comments underscore the results of a study by Annenberg Public Policy Center researchers, who found that users of social media, as well as consumers of “conservative media” – with Fox News and the Drudge Report listed as examples – were more likely to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. One way that Springer tries to check the data she consumes through social media is by “do[ing] research about the topic. Oftentimes, while the statistics may be correct, there is a lot of misinformation as well.”

However, social media has had an opposite effect for some students. “I think the way the vaccine is presented online, at least the way I’ve seen it, has made me want to be vaccinated more,” said Aaron Glassman, ‘22. Dr. Radice also commented on the positive side of the media’s portrayal of COVID-19: “[Media] kept me abreast of the absolute devastation of the pandemic and how I could help get us out of it by getting vaccinated.”

The impact of misinformation has not stopped Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) residents from getting vaccinated: As of June 2, 65% of Maplewood residents and 67% of South Orange residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This puts the citizens of MAPSO at a higher vaccination rate than the New Jersey (51%) and national (46%) average. But why is that?

Students noted the minimal risk of side effects as one reason. “Personally, there is nothing I have heard that concerns me about the possible side effects associated with the vaccines,” said Springer. Glassman agreed, while also speaking to the influence of peers. “My friends have received the vaccine, which has made me more inclined to get it. I haven’t really heard or read anything that has made me overly concerned over consequences or side effects.”

Dr. Radice cited her profession: “I work in Healthcare, so I was vaccinated early on in January. There is no way I would work closely with my patients without it, even masked, or go home to my family after interacting with people in close contact.” 

Overall, the risks associated with COVID-19 seemed to be worse than the risks associated with getting vaccinated. An anonymous teacher confirmed this and spoke to their personal health as a factor. “I decided to get the vaccine because with my other health conditions [I] feel the benefits outweigh the risks.” Students, parents and teachers said they felt safer once receiving the vaccine or being around vaccinated peers. 

However, members of the CHS community are continuing to wear a mask after vaccination despite the Centers for Disease Control stating masks were no longer required to wear outdoors once receiving a vaccine. “People who see me in public don’t necessarily know that I’m vaccinated, so I think that when they see me they’d see someone being unsafe and not someone who’s vaccinated. I wouldn’t want them to feel like I was putting their health at risk,” said Olivia Brash, ‘21.

Johnson agreed and said, “I am still navigating how I follow the mask rules. As a general guide, if I am around strangers I will keep on [my] mask inside or out[side].” Springer, who is 14, has yet to receive a vaccine, as the Federal Drug Administration only recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 on May 10. However, she noted that her parents, who are fully vaccinated, “always wear their mask outside in public, but if we are having friends over for an outdoor activity they will occasionally remove their masks.” 

In terms of youth vaccinations, Springer said that “I, along with my parents, want me to get the vaccine.” Glassman, who has a 14 year old brother, agreed. “I personally think he’ll be fine getting the vaccine, though if I was a parent I may be more careful with that decision.” Dr. Radice “signed her [15 year old daughter] up as soon as approval came through,” and said that her family can now “do things like have people over and hug them!”

Efforts to get more Amercians vaccinated have resulted in unique campaigns, such as several city and state-wide programs, including New Jersey’s “Shot and a Beer”, in which proof of vaccination gets a varied amount of free alcohol for residents over 21, depending on the specific location. Businesses have also used free products to encourage customers to get vaccinated, such as Krispy Kreme’s free doughnut promotion – provided the consumer can produce their vaccination card. 

While these programs help incentivize MAPSO residents to get the vaccine, worries still persist over the timeline of the vaccines’ emergency approval for use.

“[The quick approval of the vaccines] is the reason I was going to pass on the vaccine. Let someone else be the guinea pig,” said an anonymous teacher. While Glassman noted he has listened to a podcast about how vaccine manufacturers shortened the process, he still commented that “the fast pace of approval somewhat concerns [him], but that concern is lessened by the fact that a good amount of people will be getting the same vaccine.” 

Art by: A. Braka

These worries stem back to media non-amplification of the history of vaccines. Dr. Radice said, “mRNA technology in vaccine development has been around since at least the last SARS epidemic more than a decade ago, so the fast track was on the approval end, not the research and testing end.” Johnson also noted that “ample cases of COVID-19 and unprecedented resources provided all of the data needed to meet the same standards for approval as other vaccines that took much longer.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA vaccines, which, according to the CDC, act as a temporary blueprint for immune cells to make a spike protein that is found on the surface of COVID-19. It does this because COVID-19 is a virus that hides from our immune system, essentially making it so that our bodies don’t see the virus as being harmful or foreign, and thus will not attack it. By replicating the spike protein and binding it to the surface of the immune cell, the immune system will recognize the protein as a foreign entity, and will create antibodies in response to its presence.

The CDC is seen dispelling vaccine misinformation through bolded and bulleted information, such as “mRNA vaccines cannot give someone COVID-19,” or “mRNA vaccines do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.” There are also articles online showing the step-by-step process of how these vaccines are made, such as this one from the New York Times

Regardless of the amount of verified data and news circulated online, it is difficult to dispel the myths created through the sudden and deadly emergence of COVID-19. The Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that 17% of U.S. adults believed that “the pharmaceutical industry created the coronavirus to increase sales of its drugs and vaccines.” This statistic rings true in one teacher’s belief that COVID-19 vaccines are “basically a conspiracy to line the pockets of Big Pharma companies with our money. With the huge hype [around the vaccines], people will not be upset that [the companies are] getting so rich.  And people may complain less about paying taxes [as a result of producing the vaccine].” 

However, this teacher said they “avoid[ed] sharing [their] opinions about it” because they don’t think they should voice their opinion on this matter as an authority figure in an environment with students. “If a student were to ask, I’d stress that it includes many personal risk factors and it’s a decision to be made with their parents and physicians.” 

Johnson, on the other hand, “believe[s] in the vaccine and ha[s] not hidden that.” She continued, “I do think there is room in a classroom for teachers to share their opinions – although, like all things that are potentially divisive, it should be done with sensitivity to everyone in the room.” Johnson noted that COVID-19 is a public health crisis, and as such, “actual science should get more weight” when vaccinations are being discussed. 

As more Americans get vaccinated and summer is just around the corner, there is hope for the public health crisis to wane. To do this, however, Springer stated, “We just need to put our faith in the experts.” How many people will trust scientists, and maybe grab a free doughnut? We will have to wait and see.

Design by: Albert Braka