Dr. Sherry Pagoto discusses COVID-19 vaccine safety, efficacy

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Sherry Pagoto, a professor in the department of allied health sciences and the director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health & Social Media, discussed several misconceptions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines being administered to the public. Photo courtesy of UConn Allied Health website.

Sherry Pagoto, a professor in the department of allied health sciences and the director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health & Social Media, spoke about the steps being taken to prove the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, refuted several misconceptions surrounding the vaccine and discussed what people outside of the medical field can do to help. 

Pagoto began by talking about the steps being taken by tech companies like Google and Twitter to push these campaign efforts to the front. She said this is no accident, and tech companies have made a particular effort to amplify voices in the medical community to get the word out. 

“Tech companies have been amplifying public health efforts to get the word out. The medical and scientific community on Twitter is also very active in discussing the COVID-19 vaccines and COVID-19 in general. For breaking news on COVID-19, I recommend following the topic, ‘COVID-19 health experts’ on Twitter,” Pagoto said. 

Pagoto went on to discuss several misconceptions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines being administered to the public. She said one particular misconception is the vaccines were produced too quickly, but she said they are built upon previous research and benefitted from greater funding. 

“One very common concern about the vaccine is that the speed at which the research was done and at which the vaccine was approved means that the data can’t be trusted,” Pagoto said. “The reality is that the science the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is based on has been developing for over a decade … Because of the urgency, this research received far more resources than usual. As a clinical trialist, I can tell you this matters a lot.” 

Pagoto said another point of confusion for many was the production of the vaccine before trials were complete. She said this was done because of the severity of the situation, and it has led to an impressive number of vaccines being administered. 

“Normally, when we aren’t in an emergency situation, production wouldn’t start until after the trials. Many people are frustrated that the vaccine rollout is so slow, but it is actually an impressive feat that as of yesterday [Feb. 25] 66 million doses have been administered since Dec. 14 when the vaccines were released,” Pagoto said. “If they hadn’t started production early, we would be nowhere near that.” 

Pagoto spoke about the idea college students may not need to receive the vaccine because many are not part of an at-risk group. She said infectious diseases are like dominoes, so a student getting COVID-19 runs the risk of transmitting the disease to others who may likewise contribute to these dominoes. 

“Each of us is a domino, but you can’t knock one over without knocking over many more … Every infection keeps the pandemic alive — the dominoes just keep falling. I think we can all agree that our goal is to end the pandemic ASAP.” 

Sherry Pagoto, professor in the department of allied health sciences and director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health & Social Media

“Each of us is a domino, but you can’t knock one over without knocking over many more. If you get infected, it is because the domino before you did, and just like that domino knocked you over, you will knock over the next one, and so on,” Pagoto said. “Every infection keeps the pandemic alive — the dominoes just keep falling. I think we can all agree that our goal is to end the pandemic ASAP.” 

Pagoto also said a sizable number of young adults have COVID-19 symptoms that last longer than two weeks. She discussed several long-term symptoms and asked students to consider if they are willing to face these symptoms for an extended period. 

“About 27% of young adults infected with COVID-19 will have symptoms for more than 2 weeks, and many will have symptoms for months,” Pagoto said. “Long COVID-19 symptoms include severe fatigue, brain fog, sleep disorders, shortness of breath and more. People with long COVID-19 also have high rates of depression and anxiety … Even if you like your odds of surviving COVID-19, be sure to consider how several weeks to months of being debilitated would affect your life right now.” 

Much of the misinformation surrounding the vaccine starts on the internet, Pagoto said. She said websites like Twitter have ecosystems of “bots,” or non-human-run accounts, designed to spread incorrect information that plays into people’s fears. 

“Most myths are started on the internet, and they appear so shocking they end up getting shared widely. Social media outlets like Twitter have a significant ‘bot’ ecosystem that fans the flames of misinformation, so these myths easily go viral,” Pagoto said. “The vaccine myths typically tap into our worst fears like infertility, genetic mutations and death. Fear sells.” 

Pagoto said people not involved in a medical field can still take steps to convince those around them the vaccine is safe and effective. She said people can speak about their personal experiences with the vaccine and stay up to date on news from reliable sources to share with others. 

“Some people are worried about severe side effects, which are actually quite rare. If they see lots of friends and family reporting no major problems with the vaccine, they may become more comfortable with getting it themselves,” Pagoto said. “Another step you can take is to educate yourself about the vaccines with reliable sources and pass along what you are learning to people in your life who may not be accessing this information. I think we each have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to pass that along to others is a great service.” 

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