‘Very effective and very safe:’ Orlando doctors look to thwart COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Experts say herd immunity is needed to resume normal life

Orange County health leaders want to help educate and inform those who may be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, so they hosted a town hall Monday to help build trust.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County health leaders want to help educate and inform those who may be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, so they hosted a town hall Monday to help build trust.

The discussion took place Monday evening and addressed questions related to vaccine safety, herd immunity and potential risks.

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Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, Florida Department of Health in Orange County health officer Dr. Raul Pino, AdventHealth chief health equity officer Dr. Alric Simmonds and AdventHealth Orlando associate chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist Dr. Victor Herrera were in attendance and provided their insight.

The goal, they said, wasn’t to tell anyone what to do but to give them the information needed to make an informed decision about their health.

For some residents, there are concerns about whether the vaccine is safe and effective.

While any medical procedure comes with potential side effects, Herrera said in this case, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

“So when we asked ourselves, ‘What is the risk from the vaccine?’ The more important question is, ‘What is the risk from COVID-19 if you get COVID-19?’ And in almost all the situations when you present that equation, the risk from COVID-19 is far greater than the risk potentially from the vaccine,” Herrera said.

He said the more data that has come out the more that has proven to be true, even after 15 women out of about 8 million people contracted dangerous blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson formula. Federal health officials have since lifted a moratorium on the J&J vaccine so it can be administered once again.

Pino said of the 260,000 inoculations done at the Orange County Convention Center site, he hasn’t seen any serious side effects.

“The vaccine has proven to be very effective and very safe,” Pino said.

While some people, particularly younger residents, may think they’d rather contract COVID-19 and gain immunity that way assuming they’ll have a mild case, Herrera pointed out that there’s no surefire way to know who will and won’t fall seriously ill. He said he’s seen young people with no risk factors hospitalized.

“My answer to anybody who says, ‘Well I think my risk is very low,’ is that at the beginning we thought we knew who was going to get very sick from COVID. Now, I think the answer is we don’t know. To me that’s the best argument to why everybody should get the vaccine,” Herrera said.

Younger people also need to consider that they could acquire the disease and pass it on to those who are older and more vulnerable, especially residents who live in multi-generational households.

“We do see young people intubated in the ICU because of COVID. I really think it’s a misnomer. It’s almost a fool’s gold, if you will, and you’re playing Russian roulette with your life and potentially the lives of people who you love, and as Dr. Pino mentioned, it’s not intentional, but you can get vaccinated, you can get vaccinated very, very safely as millions of Americans already have and you can help prevent this as opposed to inadvertently spread it or allowing it to mutate,” Simmonds said.

Another risk with the deadly respiratory disease is the potential to be among the 10% of COVID-19 patients who are considered long haulers. Many of them only developed mild cases that didn’t require hospitalization but months later they still report a loss of smell and issues with their memory.

While some are choosing not to get vaccinated, others would like to but haven’t had access either due to lack of transportation, lack of access to technology or other obstacles. Demings said moving forward, the county will put a greater emphasis on mobile vaccination events that will provide residents the opportunity to get their shot in their neighborhood.

He said health care workers have already provided vaccinations to certain residents in their homes and offered opportunities at community centers, hospitals, pharmacies and grocery stores.

“The key is to make it as convenient as possible for people so that they do not have to travel long distances to be able to get access. We now know that when we make it convenient for them, and it’s right on their street, perhaps right in their households, they will take the opportunity to do so,” Demings said.

Orange County residents age 60 and older can use Lynx to get to the Orange County Convention Center and Valencia College West Campus sites for free. More information on that is available here.

Pino said there’s also a plan to develop an email address for members of the community to submit requests for mobile vaccine pods to visit their place of worship, workplace or neighborhood.

“We’ve created an index that looks at the number of cases, the mortality in the area, and how they are socially ranked by the CDC with the social vulnerability index. We mix all that, we establish our ranking and we will go to those places that are higher risk to having an outbreak,” Pino said.

There’s a new COVID-19 drug in town and the company behind it hopes the treatment will help those suffering from post-COVID-19 infection chronic fatigue-like symptoms, who have been dubbed “long haulers.”

He didn’t give a timeline for when that new initiative will be launched.

As the state continues to report thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, all four men on the panel agreed that distributing the vaccine is the best chance the community has at getting life back to the way it was pre-pandemic. The caveat to that is that if too many people forgo the shots, it will be more difficult to reach herd immunity, which happens when 60% to 70% of the population has developed antibodies.

“We could eliminate the virus today if we all get immunized at the same time in this country, everyone. In four weeks, we’ll be able to say, ‘We are virus free,’” Pino said.

While that’s unlikely to happen, Pino said the focus instead becomes on getting as many people vaccinated as possible to reduce the risk of new variants forming and to keep the health care system from becoming overburdened.

“We are going to see what we have seen with Ebola, these diseases are not going to disappear out of (thin air) easily. It will be sustained at some levels, what we want to have is management as we continue to vaccinate people without overtaxing the health system and without having elderly individuals dying for something that is preventable,” Pino said.

Demings closed out the town hall by telling his constituents to listen to public health leaders.

“The research I believe is clear now that we can help ourselves by ensuring that we all get vaccinated,” he said.

Orange County officials said the event was part of the #IGotMyShot campaign aimed at providing residents the information they need when it comes to making a decision about the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of the most recent numbers available, about 34% of Orange County residents are vaccinated. Demings said he’d like to see that number swell to at least 50% before he considers easing the county mask mandate.