Orlando doctor says skipping coronavirus vaccine is like ‘playing Russian roulette’ as hesitancy persists

Mayor expects eligibility to expand within weeks

ORLANDO, Fla. – While seniors line up daily in Central Florida to get access to the life-saving coronavirus vaccine, others in the community are turning away their chance to receive the shot.

Dr. Alric Simmonds, the chief health equity officer for AdventHealth, spoke about vaccine hesitancy during a news conference Monday afternoon and explained why some residents may be afraid to get inoculated.

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“There are several different groups of people who are hesitant to be vaccinated. Some of them are afraid. We’ve heard a lot of things around the trust of the community, particularly those who are African American and LatinX, who have long standing memories of atrocities that have been committed. And what I would say is that this vaccine, the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine and probably soon to be the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, have been vetted and are very, very safe,” Simmonds said.

To help reach those groups, Orange County Department of Health epidemiologist Alvina Chu said mobile distribution teams have been created to go into communities to provide access to residents who otherwise may not be able to get the vaccine. The goal is to help diminish any racial disparities.

So far, more than 4,600 doses have been distributed by deploying the mobile teams in communities that could be vulnerable or have higher death rates from COVID-19.

As time goes on, Simmonds expects to see more Black and Latinx residents who are willing to roll up their sleeves.

“Another reality of it, I think those communities, they know people who have died COVID, they know people who’ve been in the ICU and so they get it. And I think that a lot of it is fear that is holding them hostage. And as they see that this vaccine is safe, when it is distributed in scale, I think they become more confident themselves and they will get vaccinated over time,” Simmonds said.

He understands the distrust but hopes that residents will seek clarity from their doctors or health care providers who can fully articulate the science behind the shots.

One concern he’s heard in particular is that the vaccines were rushed to approval and may not be fully vetted. Simmonds said that’s not the case.

“The research behind these mRNA-related vaccines has been going on for greater than 30 years. It is that 30 years worth of sunk work that has allowed these messenger RNA vaccinations to be rapidly ready, and to in fact actually be modifiable to some of these variant strains that we’re starting to see now,” Simmonds said.

Another complaint is about possible side effects including soreness at the injection site, fever and headaches. Simmonds said he was tired after getting his second dose but the next day he felt fine.

He explained those minor ailments are from the body’s inflammatory response.

“The community at large should not fear that. I would take any of those symptoms (over) being in an ICU on a ventilator and being socially isolated and perhaps dying any day of the year,” Simmonds said.

The vaccine, along with wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing, is the best tool available to help life return back to normal, according to the doctor.

“At the end of the day, each day that you wait is playing Russian roulette... so please make the responsible decision, the best, responsible decision for yourself and your family and get vaccinated,” Simmonds said.

While only health care professionals and those 65 and older can get inoculated now, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said eligibility could expand in the near future.

“As the supply expands, so will the eligibility criteria. So I think that we’re not months away from that happening, I think we’re just weeks, we should see some modification occurring,” Demings said.

It’s unknown who will be included in the next priority group.

Since efforts began late last year, Orange County has vaccinated 7.89% of its overall population and 45.7% of its elderly residents. As more and more residents got their shots, the demand is decreasing, allowing more people access.

On Monday, a new set of appointments became available at the Orange County Convention Center, which is now performing 3,000 shots per day. The portal closed about two hours after opening once all the spots were taken. A week ago, it took less than an hour for all the slots to be filled.

Another way the county plans to help improve access is identifying communities in which mobile units will operate once FEMA opens its Orlando vaccination site next week. Demings said potential areas for those satellite locations will be identified in the coming days with the focus being to address health equity issues.

While daily case numbers have gone down in recent weeks, Demings reminded residents that deaths are still occurring and precautions still need to be taken.

“The coronavirus still poses a grave threat and we must not grow lax as we work to prevent further illnesses and deaths,” he said.

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