Philly teen confronts misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine

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Alejandro Garcia, 16, receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

Alejandro Garcia, 16, receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J., Monday, April 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the coronavirus and vaccines?

When the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, Bianca Murray felt confused and apprehensive. She didn’t know much about the vaccines, and all the information she was getting was through social media. Stories of the vaccine making you infertile and potentially making you sicker than before pushed her further and further from even considering getting the vaccine for herself.

Murray, 19, a Philly Audio Diaries youth producer, is part of a generation that grew up online — their lives have been defined by social media and the internet. Memes, Twitter threads, and infographics on Instagram function as the source of news for young people like her. And that can lead to a lot of wrong information being shared.

So she explored some essential questions about the vaccines: What are they, who should be vaccinated, and are they safe? For answers, she spoke to Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Not surprisingly, he’s a champion of the vaccine:

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So me myself, I really am skeptical about getting the vaccine. Can you enlighten me on what it’s made of and let me know if it will affect me daily? 

It’s fair to be skeptical. I think you should be skeptical of anything you put into your body. I think there’s a difference between someone who’s skeptical and someone who’s cynical … Others may say, I don’t care what the pharmaceutical companies say. I don’t care what the FDA says. I don’t care what the CDC says. The Centers for Disease Control, I don’t care. I read what I read on the internet. I realize that it’s possible I could get this vaccine to become a zombie. And so I’m not going to get this vaccine. That’s not a vaccine skeptic. That’s a vaccine cynic.

Yes, I know a lot of people like that, but I think it’s just because they’re misinformed.

I’m with you. I think they’re misinformed, too. And there’s a lot of bad information out there, information like the vaccine can make it so that you won’t be fertile, that you can’t have babies, or that the vaccine would affect you when you’re pregnant or when you’re breastfeeding. There’s just so much bad information about this, like the vaccine gives you the infection. It is hard to watch not just the level of misinformation out there, but the degree to which people who should be far better at this, people who are authority figures, are sort of dispelling that misinformation.

So on social media, I’ve been seeing memes and a lot of different posts, and people making jokes about it, you know, them saying … getting the vaccine will make you into some type of zombie or something. So what do you make of that?  

Yes, that’s true, if you get the vaccine, you’ll become a zombie, that’s right.

So, no, you don’t become a zombie. The internet is a great source of great information and terrible information. This is just another kind of messenger RNA that will help you make the protein, in this case, the coronavirus’ protein, so that you can make an immune response to it so you can be protected. So it’s nothing you don’t see all the time. It can’t possibly alter your DNA. You have a greater chance of developing X-ray vision after you get this vaccine than you do of having it alter your DNA.

Do you yourself recommend getting the vaccine?

Yes! I’m on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee. When we recommend that the vaccine be approved for use, the criteria that we use is: Would I get that vaccine myself and would I give it to my family. If the answer is yes, then you recommend it for other people’s families. So, yes, most definitely.

What is the risk of not getting the vaccine?

The risk of not getting a vaccine is that you risk catching and dying from this virus. I mean, you guys are young. Ninety-two percent of the deaths from this virus are in people over 55; 40% of the deaths occur in people who are in nursing homes. If you look at people less than 21 years of age, which comprise 26% of the U.S. population, they account for 0.08% of the deaths. So you’re unlikely to die. That said, you can get pretty sick.

What’s the cost of the vaccine, and can you get it for free?

It’s free … Your tax dollars pay for this vaccine.

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Bianca Murray, Anne Hoffman, Alisa Barba, and Sandy Fleurimond collaborated on this story for Philly Audio Diaries, a program that teaches young people how to tell stories and record their lives. Philly Audio Diaries is part of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia. Their new podcast, Off Mic, was made possible by a grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation. 

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