Dr. Britta Maciuba has lost four patients to COVID-19 and cares for several others who are suffering long-term effects from the disease, and she knows the pandemic that hit this community in March 2020 is still not over.
“It’s just heartbreaking that there’s so much misinformation out there and that it’s actually causing people to die and causing people to live with severe damage to their body,” Maciuba said. “It’s just a waste at this point.”
Less than half of Kentuckians and Nelson Countians are fully vaccinated at a time when the SarsCoV-2 virus that causes covid has mutated into a much more contagious variant that is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in parts of the country, including Kentucky.
Vaccine hesitancy and outright resistance have hindered the effort to get enough people vaccinated — some estimates say up to 70% — to contain the disease. Hesitancy has decreased since the first vaccine became available in January, but many people still have concerns.
Maciuba has had several conversations with patients as part of her family medicine practice at Baptist Health Medical Group in Bardstown.
“Sometimes I think I’ve managed to persuade people that it’s safe,” Maciuba said.
She has been practicing medicine in the area for about six years, and she said she has built trust with her patients over that time, which can help patients who have concerns about vaccine safety. But there are some barriers that even the trust between a doctor and patient can’t breach.
“Some people are just adamantly opposed to it,” she said. “I think nothing I can say is going to change their minds. But some people are willing to listen and to trust in me.”
Maciuba said she listens to each of her patients that are hesitant to try to understand where their hesitancy is coming from.
“I try to individualize it, because I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.
Some of patients have concerns, she said, of the very rare serious side effects some people have suffered, and tries to talk to them about the relative risks between catching the disease and vaccine safety.
“They hear one person dies from the vaccine,” she said. “But you hear 600,000 people die from covid and they’re like, ‘Well, maybe I won’t get it.”
She said one response she hears from people is that everyone is going to die. And that’s true.
“But there are good deaths, and there are bad deaths,” Maciuba said. “And COVID is not a way that anybody would want to die. Because people who have COVID die alone, you die in an ICU bed with a nurse who looks like she’s in a hazmat suit holding your hand while she holds up an iPad, for your family to say goodbye. And that’s not a way that anybody wants to die.”
Maciuba is a doctor, but she is also a mother, and her children are not old enough yet to get vaccinated, which gives her another dimension of concern.
While previous variants of the disease have disproportionately affected the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, the share of the healthy and the young among those hospitalized with covid is increasing. And while she is still caring for sick patients, Maciuba has watched most of society go “back to normal” as social distancing and mask restrictions have been lifted.
“Everyone’s tired. I’m tired of it, you know, I want to get back to normal,” she said. “But personally, in our family, we haven’t really changed much at this point. And I worry about the people who have kind of completely gone back to normal.”
She said it makes sense for some vaccinated people to take a risk and attend a crowded event. But if they have children, the parent’s vaccine could prevent them from getting sick but could still pass along the virus to a child.
“There’s still a whole segment that can’t be vaccinated,” she said.
Misinformation comes from few, spread by many
Rampant misinformation is complicating doctors’ efforts to allay patient fears about vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate compiled a report tracking vaccine misinformation on social media in February and March it titled “The Disinformation Dozen.”
Among its sample of anti-vaccine content posted on Facebook and Twitter, it found 65% could be traced back to a dozen individuals. They were especially prevalent on Facebook, accounting for 73% of the sampled posts.
The people identified in the report include Joseph Mercola, a “successful anti-vaccine entrepreneur, peddling dietary supplements and false cures as alternatives to vaccines,” according to his description in the report. He had 3.6 million followers.
Another was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a long-standing anti-vaccine activist whose organization had specifically targeted Latino and Black communities with anti-vaccine campaigns.
The report, availanle at https://www.counterhate.com/disinformationdozen, contains examples of posts and memes anyone who has spent anytime on Facebook will recognize.