Last Thursday, doctors, religious leaders and Georgia state officials came together at the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) to discuss how to increase the vaccination rate among eligible groups.

“In the community, a lot of misinformation has been out there,” Dr. Michael Brooks, President and CEO of the Family Health Centers of Georgia said. “I know you’ve all heard that they’re putting something in there to track you; well most of us have a tracking device we carry every day, which is a phone.”

Doctors and public health officials quickly dispelled some of the more improbable vaccine worries like the shot being used to implant a microchip or the vaccine causing people to become magnetic.

Still, many people are left with serious health concerns about the effects of the vaccine.

Common COVID-19 Vaccine Concerns:

  • Vaccine causes COVID

Both the messenger RNA (Pfizer and Moderna) and the viral vector (Johnson & Johnson) vaccines teach the body to fight the spike proteins the coronavirus uses to enter human cells.

The vaccine alone will not cause a person to test positive for the COVID-19 virus. However, a vaccinated person may test positive on an antibody test which shows if a person previously had the virus.

  • Infertility

Men and women who are hoping to have kids in the future have refrained from getting the COVID vaccine due to the fear that it might cause future fertility problems. There are no documented cases of this happening.

Similarly, the CDC points out that no vaccine has ever been shown to cause fertility issues in men or women.

However, there is evidence that people who contract COVID-19 — a mild or severe case — can have a range of long-term issues, including ones that affect reproductive health. In women, this can mean changes or irregularity in the menstrual cycle.

Erectile dysfunction — short-term and long-term — can be a lasting effect of contracting the virus in men of all ages.

  • Vaccine changes DNA

While it is true that both mRNA and viral vector vaccines teach the body to fight the virus by delivering genetic material to the cells.

It is not true that this can alter your DNA. The genetic material from the vaccine doesn’t penetrate the nucleus of the cell where DNA is stored.

  • Vaccine was made too fast

Another common concern among people who are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine specifically is that they believe the process was rushed and there wasn’t enough research done.

Dr. Brooks pointed out that in the past, vaccines took so long to hit the market because of funding and bureaucratic roadblocks. Due to the severity and the rapid spread of the coronavirus, researchers had all those barriers removed as the entire world was looking for a solution.

The virus was first identified and reported in December 2019.

Moderna began clinical trials for a vaccine in March 2020. By December 2020 both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines got approval for emergency use from the FDA.

Although one year from the discovery of the disease to vaccine approval is quick, research for these types of vaccines has been happening for decades. 

Dr. Lilly Immergluck, professor, pediatrician and infectious disease specialist said that mRNA technology has been around for a while.

“mRNA designed specially for COVID is new but mRNA has been applied for other germs,” she said.

According to Immergluck mRNA, technology can allow us to rapidly respond to new variants. She emphasized however that right now the vaccine protects against all the variants found in the U.S.

Similarly, the viral vector technology used in the J&J vaccine has been researched for many years to combat the Zika virus and influenza. In recent years a viral vector vaccine was used to combat Ebola outbreaks.

  • Historical factors

Low vaccination rates among Black Americans can be directly linked to distrust of the medical establishment after generations of experiencing racism at the hands of healthcare professionals.

An unvaccinated person is at a much greater risk of contracting the virus and being hospitalized. Throughout the pandemic, hospitalized Black people have experienced the highest death rates from COVID.

Right now the most effective way to avoid hospitalization is to receive the vaccine.

Many African Americans also remember the Tuskegee Experiment, where hundreds of Black men were studied without their consent.

The Tuskegee Experiment did not give its subjects a vaccine. Instead, the men were kept in the dark about having syphilis and denied treatment.

A decade into the study when penicillin became the standard treatment for the disease, the men were not given the medicine.

As a result, syphilis spread through the community and many people died.

Black people are regularly denied access to treatment due to medical racism.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study in 2012 showing that Black patients received opioids for pain treatment much less than other groups.

The opioid crisis did not impact Black communities to the extent it might have if medical racism was not a factor. Black communities however were still affected.

Six years later, researchers at Yale University published a paper showing that Black people were left out of the response to the opioid crisis. As a result, opioid overdose deaths were rising among Black people at a much higher rate than among white people.

This is because when medical racism rears its head, it is frequently to ignore Black patients.

The low vaccination rate among young adults was a major point of concern for doctors on the panel, saying that the 20-45 age group was the largest driver of new COVID cases.

Many frontline workers are in this age range and as such are at a greater risk of contracting the virus. Though COVID has often been portrayed as only dangerous to the elderly or immunocompromised, younger people should still be cautious.

Younger people who have contracted the virus are susceptible to the long-term effects that last after they stop being sick.

Unvaccinated people are also more likely to spread the virus, putting kids under 12 at risk because they are not yet eligible.

The CDC is continuing to study the long-term effects of both the coronavirus and the coronavirus vaccine.

Dr. James Richardson, Chief Medical Director of Peach State Health Plan began the panel discussion with statistics about the vaccination rate.

Yaw Kesse gets a COVID-19 vaccine from Alexis Watts at Guaranteed Rate Field before the start of the Chicago White Sox game against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 08, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Fans who received the vaccine were offered two free tickets to the game or received a voucher good for two tickets to a future game. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

He stated that across the country, Black people have the lowest vaccination rate of 36%; in comparison 65% of Asian people, 48% of white people and 41% of Hispanic people. Adding that while the nationwide vaccination rate was around 50%, only 38% of Georgians are vaccinated.

Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, Dr. Kathleen Toomey said that in Georgia 99.9% of all hospitalizations and deaths have been from unvaccinated people.

Dr. Valerie Rice, President of Morehouse School of Medicine said the goal was to get to 75% vaccination in Georgia. 

Panelists encouraged unvaccinated people with concerns to seek out someone they know and trust who has gotten the vaccine and ask about their experience.

The coronavirus vaccine is available for free to everyone age 12 and older. Vaccine appointments are available through the Georgia Department of Public Health and Fulton County has multiple walk-up vaccine sites.

Homebound Georgians can call 888-572-0112 or email HVS@dph.ga.gov to schedule an at-home vaccination.

People who have had allergic reactions to vaccines in the past, or have severe allergies, or are currently pregnant are advised to discuss with their doctor before getting the vaccine.

Madeline Thigpen is an education reporter and Report for America Corps Member. She joined the Atlanta Voice in 2021. At the Voice she covers K-12 education for the Atlanta metro region and higher education....