Updated: Apr 20
Anti-vaxxers are using fear against the COVID-19 vaccine. And it might be working.
And Then I Just Fainted
On Dec. 17, Tiffany Dover, a registered Nurse at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, received the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 dose while at work. Since healthcare workers were the first to get the vaccine, she was emotional yet excited. She could finally continue to help people and not worry about getting sick. It was a big event, so like the media coverage of politicians receiving the vaccine, local and national cameras were rolling. Seventeen minutes later, during an interview, Dover said she felt dizzy and then fainted. After, she explained to the press: “I have a history of having an overactive vagal response, and so with that if I have pain from anything, a hangnail or if I stub my toe, I just pass out,” she said.
The hospital tried to quell the chaos by quoting the CDC website as saying that “fainting can happen after many types of vaccinations. Fainting can be triggered by many types of medical procedures. In fact, CDC has received reports of people fainting after nearly all vaccines. Fainting after getting a vaccine is most commonly reported after three vaccines given to adolescents: HPV, MCV4, and Tdap.” The press announcement didn’t work.
Anti-Vaxxers Are Watching You
A small, vocal minority known as anti-vaxxers were watching, and Dover’s explanation made them angry. As Jonathan Berman, a doctor at the New York Institute of Technology who studies anti-vaxxer communities said, “But it made for a dramatic video.” Berman said anti-vaxxers are ravenous for proof that the vaccine is dangerous, and they insisted she was lying and in reality, had responded negatively to the vaccine. “People tend to believe their eyes, and seeing someone faint is scary. It gives you a visceral gut reaction,” Berman said. For anti-vaxxers, that’s a powerful tool.
Not unlike its dark history in other diseases, anti-vaxxer rhetoric during the pandemic has led some Americans to deceptively believe that COVID-19 vaccines will kill people, or that the government is using it to control and manipulate our democratic rights. And they are hunting relentlessly for any evidence that helps their cause, even if it means devastating families or healthcare workers with invasive social media tactics. Authorities on anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are concerned that this wild-wild west mentality for death and mayhem could hinder efforts to defeat this horrific pandemic. The problem is, in many ways it already has.
Something Bad Happened To Tiffany Dover
So anti-vaxxers started trolling Dover online, searching her social media accounts for any usable evidence to prove something grim had happened to her. Their argument? How could she be a nurse if she faints after getting a shot? They ranted that because she had not posted anything on social media in the days following her vaccine, something bad had happened to her. Something bad did happen. But to a different Tiffany Dover.
The anti-vaxxers succeeded in finding a death certificate for someone with Dover’s name and age who lived in Higdon, Alabama, only a 28-mile drive from Chattanooga. They then went on a social media rampage, posting the death certificate, insisting that the vaccine had killed her. On bgdsearches.com, the post, with a video of Dover fainting read:
“We regret to report that nurse Tiffany Dover has reportedly passed away, according to the following reports posted on social media and other platforms today December 19, 2020. Reports are that Tiffany Dover, the nurse who fainted on television after receiving the vaccine inoculation, has died. Hard to confirm right now, since we know this would be the pro-vaccine people’s worst PR nightmare and they will want to cover it up. (sic)” And other comments to that post: “They stand in front to block it she is DEAD AND THEY ARE COVERING IT UP FIZER (sic) MUST PAY.” And:
“Update: someone found a video of her from before. She’s a (sic) actress, just like I thought. Look at the comments below, however they deleted the video. Because it’s not real, bad actress. I don’t believe the doctors are real either. Did you see how they acted. Sure didn’t look like someone was in trouble. (sic)”
The Nurse Is Fine And All Is Well
Later, the hospital Tweeted that the nurse was at home and all was well, but that Ms. Dover wanted to maintain her privacy. When that failed to persuade, the hospital said she was working a shift, and even showed a video of her with other employees. A Tennessee public health official stated publicly that they had no records of anyone who received a COVID-19 vaccine that died for any vaccine-related reason.
Dedicated anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists salivating for proof of their convictions, however, don’t want the power of the media taken away, Berman says. So, instead of retreating on Dover, they announced they refuse to believe she’s alive until she makes a statement with proof of a timestamp and date. They continued to harass her family and posted untruths on social media, prompting Dover to cancel all her accounts. They also implored they still won’t believe anything she says because she has been “paid off” to say she’s alive and well. And the video that the hospital released of Dover happily at work? “It’s a deep fake video or a stunt double. (sic)”
A post on Telegram, analyzing the video, said, “Tiffany Dover’s hair is a different shade and thickness, folded differently on her head, covered mouth, and you can’t see her ice-blue eyes.” The post continued: “They pushed the crisis actor to the front [of the group of nurses in the video,] too. This is further proof of the cover up of Tiffany Dover’s death… The vaccinations kill. (sic)”
Vaccine Hesitancy Is Killing Us
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top ten threats to global health. Health experts say anywhere from seventy to ninety percent of people need to be vaccinated if COVID-19 is to be controlled. “What it does is it protects those who aren’t vaccinated, so we would like to see seventy-five to eighty-five percent of the population vaccinated, because right now everybody is susceptible,” said Dr. Laura Cassidy, an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
In some polls, approximately two-thirds of Americans say they would get a coronavirus vaccine. Statistically, this number could change as the nation understands more about the vaccine’s success and potential side effects. Other polls show only about fifty percent of Americans said they plan to get the vaccine when it becomes available, and there are a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the anti-vaccination movement. Yet it’s a tough sell to those that have a deep-seated “American” belief that individuals know better than the government. And there are a lot of them out there.
Vaccine hesitancy is a term that really comes from the research habits of new parents introduced to vaccines for the first time, and because they don’t know where to go for answers, they rely on Google to search for information. Unfortunately, these new parents are bombarded with anti-vax messages, especially on apps like Facebook, where an entire cult of untruths exists. In the last few years, Google took measures to curve the number of groups associated with anti-vax sites, and it changed things considerably. Now, with the pandemic and more than one vaccine being offered, the anti-vaxxers have an entire new folly to engage in, and it’s frustrating scientists as they scramble to control COVID-19.
Yet there are others who are vaccine-hesitant, and it’s difficult to determine who they are. We know that White adults are more likely to be vaccinated than Black adults are, and that could be because minorities don’t have good access to healthcare and decades of abuse have corroded their trust in the medical establishment. Anti-vaxxer groups have a history of praying on Black people, as they did nearly a decade ago. When anti-vaxxers in Minnesota invited the disgraced researcher Andrew Wakefield (who inaccurately tied vaccines to autism) to give a talk to the state’s Somali immigrant community, immunization rates among Somalis declined. Just a few years later, that community sustained a large measles outbreak, and many died.
A History Of The Anti-Vax Movement
While the COVID-19 vaccine has spotlighted the anti-vaxx movement, it’s not a community that appeared out of nowhere. The Vaccination Act of 1853 mandated vaccinations for all infants over four months old and raised issues of civil liberties as well as religious concerns. The philosophy of health for many Americans simply did not contain scientific studies or analysis, and this is still part of the issue today.
Toward the end of the 19th century, smallpox outbreaks in the United States gave credence to groups fighting for vaccine campaigns, and a polarizing anti-vaccine sentiment. For mothers, especially, fear (like today’s campaign) persuaded a new mindset, as that early vaccination included scoring the flesh on a child’s arm, then inserting pus from the blister of an individual previously vaccinated.
Fear Is The Greatest Weapon
While fear is the greatest weapon, it seems, for the anti-vax soldiers, others, like Zachary Horne, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, decided to perform a study to see if perhaps scaring anti-vaxxers might just work. In the 2015 study, researchers split 315 participants into three groups.
One group read a story about a child with measles as they gazed at diseased children while listening to warnings about the importance of vaccination. The second group only read statistics demonstrating there is no link between vaccination and autism. The last read about an unrelated topic. The group exposed to the vivid anecdotes and shown graphic pictures were more likely to change their attitude toward vaccines than the other two.
Scholars like Berman and others believe this approach might prove effective with the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet he believes having conversations is better. "They're making a risk evaluation just like we're making a risk evaluation. They're doing it in a less reasonable and healthy way and arriving at the wrong decision. That doesn't mean that we have to call them stupid or act like they're foolish. It means we can have a conversation with them. Hopefully, that's a more productive way to go about it."
For The Greater Good
It’s no secret, especially since the pandemic began, that Americans tend to be more interested in personal security than the collective good. If you asked any pedestrian on the streets of South Korea why they wear masks, they would all answer, “For the greater good.” Not so in America. So, reinforcing mask-wearing and explaining how the virus could hurt your kids, for example, could change mentalities for the better. At least that’s what the medical community is hopeful for. Berman argues that anti-vaccination activism is connected intimately to how people see themselves in society as parents and members of their community. He believes effective pro-vaccination efforts must include these cultural aspects instead of battling social media posts.
Yet other professionals argue that adjusting attitudes is a pointless exercise. There is some research that shows giving people accurate information scares them even more and makes them more hesitant.
In another study, researchers found showing images of sick children (as in the previous study), made parents even more anxious about the vaccine, and negated their intent to vaccinate their children.
When Your Children Are Sick
In the end, perhaps most convincing is when your child is at risk of dying, and when that parent was once part of the anti-vax movement. And maybe, it’s these people researchers should listen to for advice on how to change the COVID-19 resisters. For many anti-vaxxers, the scare of a child’s death shakes them out of whatever they’ve read on social media. In 2015, Kristen O’Meara was one of those parents. When her three girls became infected with rotavirus and began projectile-vomiting and leaking diarrhea as they slept, the young mother was horrified. As her children recovered, she began to research - off social media - and discovered in books that there was a vaccine for rotavirus, and the same books exalted the benefits of vaccinations. In short, she discovered the truth of science and it changed her mind-set. Now she is a firm believer in vaccines.
She also realized in her experience that vaccine espousers should empathize that the vaccine-hesitant, like anyone, wants to be listened to, not ridiculed. “It is not crazy to wonder about all these unpronounceable, scary-sounding ingredients that are in vaccines,” O’Meara told The Atlantic.
Science Can Change The Future
As epidemiologists and behavior specialists agree, the challenge remains in convincing the most ardent vaccine deniers in a most difficult time. The real issue is the sparse resources dedicated to shifting the reluctance to get the vaccine, and doing so on a frenetic time schedule. Aside from the efforts of an amped-up production on the vaccine during this major crisis, there is little educational (and psychological) strategy for the public on understanding the true science evidence. At the same time, countering the enormous community of anti-vaxxers, a community that continues to organize using fear and social media, is daunting.
We must be cognizant that we’re never going to reach everyone who distrusts vaccines. Many of the most vehement anti-vaxxers distribute untruths to encourage the mercurial communities that science, and the government, are evil entities. It’s those individuals that never get the correct information. And it’s this capricious population we need to focus on. With an empathetic bent, and a handful of patience, science can change the future if we let it.