While doctors and health officials in Alabama have been trying to combat the spread of COVID-19 since last year, they’ve also been trying to fight back against the spread of misinformation based around the virus and the vaccine that was developed to fight its spread.
With cases and deaths beginning to rise in Alabama again, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has been hard at work trying to educate communities around the state about the vaccine to try and ease concerns that have popped up around conspiracy theories and misinformation regarding the vaccine itself. Alabama is seeing 1,000 cases per day again and according to the ADPH, 96 percent of the deaths related to COVID-19 have been in unvaccinated patients. Alabama is currently last in the country in vaccinations.
Dr. Karen Landers has been a physician in Alabama for more than 40 years and is currently an Area Health Officer with the ADPH. She’s worked in and won awards in the area of infectious disease control. While Landers said that misinformation is nothing new in the medical world, the amount of misinformation and the speed of its spread – due to social media – has made things even more difficult for physicians and health officials.
“We’ve employed multiple strategies, we’re messaging every day,” Landers said. “I have about eight interviews scheduled today, we have our social media platforms providing information about myths related to the vaccine, we’re engaging our communities with our ‘We Can Do This Alabama’ campaign and just this afternoon Dr. David Kimberlin – one of the world’s experts on infectious diseases – will be doing a media update. We continue to combat these myths out here.”
Landers said that people with no experience in medicine continue to push back on scientists and physicians with unfounded myths and theories about the disease and the vaccine.
“It is a huge challenge and we as scientists and physicians are daily and moment by moment providing scientific information, yet we see pushback on social media,” Landers said. “I have to remind people that I’ve been a physician for 44 years and I’ll have people say to me, ‘Well, I’ve researched this for several hours.’ Well, I’ve been researching it for 44 years.
“From research on vaccines for preventable diseases to emerging infectious diseases, this is something that many people have done their entire careers that have expertise and knowledge and colleagues that share their knowledge with. There is so much science coming out every day, yet people with no training feel that they can espouse expert opinions without ever having worked in the field.”
So called “miracle drugs” have been pushed on social media – and even by politicians – over the past year that includes the Malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine and the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin. Ivermectin has been administered to COVID-19 patients in Alabama in recent months despite not being an approved treatment for COVID-19.
“There are some really good medications and treatments out there if people get COVID but they are not Ivermectin and they are not Hydroxychloroquine,” Landers emphasized. “There is no scientific data for the use of either of those drugs for the treatment of COVID-19, but there is data on drugs like Remdesivir and is approved by the FDA.”
Landers also pointed to monoclonal antibodies – synthetic proteins developed to mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful viruses like COVID-19 – as being a good treatment that has shown to decrease the risk of hospitalizations. Still, though, Landers emphasizes there is no “miracle treatment” and the vaccines themselves are as close as we will get to a miracle.
“I have lots of experience with Hydroxychloroquine as a malaria preventive and it works in some instances with malaria but it is not a treatment for COVID-19,” Landers said. “Ivermectin is not a treatment either and it isn’t approved as a treatment for COVID-19 and neither are a miracle drug.
“The monoclonal antibodies can certainly reduce a person’s risk of being hospitalized and there and Remdesivir has been shown to decrease days in the hospital.
“The modern medical miracle we have here is the vaccine, and the technology to produce the vaccine is not new. mRNA (vaccines) have been developed for awhile and were developed for something like this in mind.”
The mRNA vaccines – or a messenger RNA vaccine – is a type of vaccine that uses a copy of a molecule called a messenger RNA to produce an immune response. In the case of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines – the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – these vaccines teach immune cells how to make a copy of the spike protein associated with COVID-19, so that the body can fight off the virus and prevent harmful side effects.
While this vaccine technology isn’t new – it’s been developed for more than two decades – it hasn’t been used readily until now, which has in part led to a number of conspiracy theories that have included the debunked claim that the vaccine “alters” a person’s DNA structure or that the vaccine “magnetizes” a person.
“People say the clinical trials were rushed but what people don’t seem to understand is that the clinical trials were ongoing at the same time the manufacturing was going on,” Landers said. “So, Operation Warp Speed was about getting manufacturing going and ready if the clinical trials panned out. Then, we would already have the product to push out.”
Landers also acknowledges that there are potential side effects to vaccines but side effects are associated with all vaccines and medications.
“We want to look at the very rare occurrence of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) that has been reported with the mRNA vaccines,” Landers said. “Keep in mind that the risk of this is minuscule compared to the risk of myocarditis as a result of COVID-19.
“Then we look at (autoimmune disorder) Guillian-Barre, which has been linked to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but there has been 100 cases out of 12 million doses. We want to continue to monitor that but it is very, very rare.”
Other claims about the vaccine, like infertility, Landers says are completely false.
“People out there have this myth in their minds that the vaccines affect fertility, it does not,” she flatly said. “There was actually studies – DART studies – that are done in reproductive studies in animals that showed no problems with fertility. Plus, we have the V-Safe registry for pregnant women that get the vaccine and the preliminary data there shows no safety concerns with the COVID-19 vaccine in pregnant women.”
Landers – who has received the vaccine alongside her family – said that she only wants to help get factual information to Alabamians to try and combat this deadly virus.
“I try to be factual and science based about this,” she said. “I have spent my whole career doing this. My goal is to improve people’s health and keep people from dying.
“Why would I tell you take something that is harmful? Why would I tell you to take something I took myself without any concerns if I thought it was harmful? I’m older now and I could be retired right now but I can’t give up this mission because I’m so worried about the citizens of Alabama receiving factual information and not listening to persons who have no experience in this. They have not treated patients or managed patients, they don’t have any backgrounds in vaccines or infectious disease. It’s really astounding to me and we really have to combat this misinformation. We’re not strangers to misinformation in medicine but we must combat it with factual information and students and remind people that just because you see something on Facebook or the internet that doesn’t make it true.”