Pennsylvania’s top doctor discusses vaccine hesitancy

Dr. Denise A. Johnson (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Health)

by Ayana Jones, Philadelphia Tribune Staff Writer

The state’s top doctor says the Pennsylvania Department of Health is tackling the issue of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

“We recognize that some people are hesitant to get vaccinated but we’re working to inform people about the vaccines and address that hesitancy,” acting Physician General Dr. Denise A. Johnson said during a virtual media roundtable Thursday.

The Wolf administration has launched the PA Unites Against COVID media campaign to deliver messages that appeal to each community’s unique motivations and hesitancy concerns.

“We’ve been working with local county leaders, influencers, medical professionals (and) trusted messengers to ensure that our efforts represent the diversity of the communities that we serve and provide the hyperlocal approach to addressing anyone’s concerns about the vaccine,” Johnson said.

“The message we want all residents to know is that there are safe and effective vaccines available. The vaccines are the best way to protect you and your loved ones from the virus and to get us back to the life that we had and we miss, before the pandemic.”

Johnson said the state Department of Health is continuing to engage with minority and rural populations to make it easy for people to gain access to the vaccines and address hesitancy issues.

“As a state we constantly look at vaccinations rates and look at them by demographic group as well. So when we see areas that are under-vaccinated, we make sure that we increase resources to that community to make sure that we catch up in terms of those rates,” she said.

“We have seen that in some areas where African Americans were less vaccinated over time we had higher vaccination rates in those areas because of those efforts.”

According to the Health Department vaccine dashboard, 43.9% of African Americans in Pennsylvania received at least one vaccine dose. This percentage does not include vaccines administered in Philadelphia county.

The Health Department has partnered with local grassroots organizations, civic groups, businesses and houses of worship to hold pop-up vaccination clinics.

Johnson and her colleagues have been traveling throughout the state to promote vaccine clinics and discuss vaccine equity and hesitancy.

She acknowledged that the Health Department has learned key lessons during the pandemic.

“We learned that we really need to meet people where they are,” Johnson said. “We need to know where our patients are and understand the limitations that they have to get to the places that we think they should get their vaccines.”

As a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, Johnson is concerned about the low vaccination rate among pregnant women.

She said women who contract COVID-19 during pregnancy have a higher risk of going to the intensive care unit.

“Unfortunately, less than one-third of pregnant women have gotten vaccinated and we know that in the African-American community that number is probably more in the teens and also in the Hispanic community and we know that those communities are more impacted,” Johnson said. “So it is urgent that we have more pregnant women get vaccinated.”

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert to increase vaccination among people who are pregnant, recently pregnant or might become pregnant. The CDC noted there are higher risks of severe illness or death for women who contract COVID-19 during pregnancy and an increased risk for adverse pregnancy and neonatal outcomes.

Johnson said it’s important that people understand how the COVID-19 vaccines work, particularly due to concerns about breakthrough cases.

“Vaccines are not like a force field that can keep the virus from getting to you at all,” Johnson explained.

“When the virus gets to you, your body’s antibodies will clear that virus. So people who have been vaccinated that do end up getting infected are much, much less likely to be hospitalized and much less likely to die from it.”

“The vaccines are working,” she continued. “They are working as they are designed so getting vaccinated does protect you against this virus, even with the delta (variant) that we have.”

Johnson also addressed the concerns that people may have over booster shots.

“We want to remind everyone that the primary force of your vaccine is still working tremendously well,” she said. “There are certain populations that may have a little bit of a waning of their immunity overtime and that is why boosters are recommended for some.”

The CDC recommended that people who are over 65, who live in a nursing home or are between the ages of 50 and 64 and have an underlying medical condition that puts them at risk, should receive a booster shot.

“The recommendation for boosters is to get a booster of the vaccine that you had before if that is available,” Johnson explained. “If it’s not available, you can get another type of vaccine.”

The Health Department notes that 91% of Pennsylvania’s reported COVID-19 cases and 93% of COVID-19 related deaths were in unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people.

More than 13 million vaccinations have been administered in Pennsylvania, according to the Health Department.

Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Health

ajones@phillytrib.com 215-893-5747

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