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Garrett County is one of the least vaccinated in Maryland. WYPR's Rachel Baye explores what's behind the trend.

Fertility Concerns And Breakthrough Infections: Debunking Common Myths About COVID Vaccines

Mary Cowden and Anthony Kangethe offer vaccines at the Garrett County Agriculture Fair earlier this month. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR
Mary Cowden and Anthony Kangethe offer vaccines at the Garrett County Agriculture Fair earlier this month. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR

Rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines to prevent the virus have been a major hurdle in efforts to convince Garrett County residents to get the shot. The rural county in Maryland’s westernmost corner is home to about 29,000 people, less than 39% of whom are fully vaccinated, the lowest vaccination rate in the state, according to state data.

WYPR’s Rachel Baye spent some time earlier this month talking with county residents about their views on COVID-19 and why they are hesitant to get a vaccine.

Baye then spoke with Marjorie Fridkin, chief medical officer at Garrett Regional Medical Center, a 55-bed hospital affiliated with the West Virginia University Health System. In her role, Fridkin communicates with other providers in the area about COVID-19 protocols and the vaccines. She is also a practicing surgeon and has treated many patients with COVID-19.

Fridkin answered questions and debunked some commonly held beliefs. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Myth:  The delta variant may be more contagious but is not as lethal as previous strains of the virus.

It spreads much, much more easily than the wild type, but it is also looking to be more aggressive now, and people are getting sicker. We're seeing a much younger population of patient having severe COVID with delta variant than we did with the wild type.

Myth:  Young people who get COVID-19 will experience something akin to the flu or a bad cold but ultimately be fine.

With the delta variant, not only do we see more aggressive COVID, more severe COVID, in younger people, but you also have to take into account that older people got vaccinated. So I take our numbers in our area where, you know, 74% of people over age 65 were vaccinated. So those people are going to be protected. But they're still going to be able to potentially pass delta around.

So now you've got this population between 30 and 50, who not only are more at risk because more of them are not vaccinated, but you also have a variant that is going to cause more severe disease in that population. It's almost like they're sitting ducks.

What about people younger than 30 — people in their 20s, as well as children?

It's worse with delta for a child than it is with wild type. And the biggest fear I have with kids and young people is these long-lasting effects from having COVID infection. And we don't know what those are going to be.

Myth:  More young people die from the flu each year than have died from COVID-19.

That's wrong as well. And I can't quote the numbers exactly, but absolutely, more young people have died from COVID than die from the flu each year.

Myth:  If I had COVID-19, I have natural immunity and don’t need to get the vaccine.

They've done a lot of studies looking at this. And actually, the best protection is someone who had COVID and got vaccinated. Like myself — I had COVID. I got the vaccine as well.

There are different types of antibodies that you need to protect yourself from COVID. The neutralizing antibodies are definitely higher in people who had COVID and got vaccinated versus people who had COVID alone.

And the protection with COVID alone is going to be best against the virus that you had, whereas once you add that vaccine, it boosts your protection against variants as well.

Myth:  The vaccine will infect me with COVID-19, and I know people who have gotten sick with fevers and body aches after getting the vaccine.

There is no COVID — actual virus — in the vaccine. Just like with many vaccines, you're experiencing an immune response. It's showing that your body is actually recognizing that protein and saying, ‘Let me start generating a response to this.’ It's actually a good thing.

Myth:  Some vaccinated people are getting breakthrough infections, and I’ve seen reports that some vaccinated people are being hospitalized with COVID-19. If I can still get infected after being vaccinated, what’s the point?

The hospitalization rate for people who are fully vaccinated and get a breakthrough infection is extremely low. And when you look at the death rate, it is almost zero.

What we're trying to do is not necessarily prevent COVID. I'm trying to prevent severe COVID and deaths from COVID.

And I'm also, as someone who runs part of a hospital system, I'm trying to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. So if I can keep people from having to be hospitalized, if I can keep people from dying, then the person who's having a heart attack has a place to go, the person who is in a car accident has a place to go, the person with appendicitis has a place to go because we aren't maxed out in the healthcare system as a whole.

Myth:  The vaccines cause fertility issues.

There are no fertility issues with getting vaccinated. When you look at what is riskier, getting COVID while pregnant or getting vaccinated before getting pregnant, by far, getting a COVID infection while pregnant is far riskier to you than getting a vaccine at any point.

What about for pre-pubescent girls, since children as young as 12 are eligible for the vaccine? Are there risks for the future fertility of 12-year-old girls?

No fertility issues at all for any age group. Everyone should get vaccinated.

And women who are considering pregnancy should absolutely get vaccinated. You should only have to see one story of someone having a C-section while on a ventilator to convince you to get vaccinated. And sadly, there’s more than one story.

Myth:  The vaccines were rushed through the approval processes without extensive research.

It was not rushed. All three vaccines have been studied extensively. They all have a lot of safety data behind them. The normal process for approval is unbelievably long, because it has a lot of administrative hurdles that you have to go through in a normal process that don't have anything to do with more safety evaluation.

Myth:  The vaccines rely on new, experimental technology.

While it feels like a new technology, and it's gotten a lot of attention because this is the first widely available vaccine using this technology, the technology itself is not new. This was developed years and years and years ago and has been studied.

And I would say, because mRNA vaccines are able to be changed quickly and developed quickly, this is going to become the standard.

Myth:  The government is building a database with identifying information about people who get the vaccines.

The information that you're giving is simply an ID because these vaccines are being paid for — they're free. So we need some way to document who we're giving them to. But the government has your information. You're not giving anything that isn't already out there. You pay taxes. You vote. All of those things require information. This is the same thing. They're not creating some list that is going to be used for anything in the future.

Who can access that information?

Everything is HIPAA protected. If you're my patient and this is medically necessary and I need to know the last time you had your hematocrit checked — your blood count — I can look that up. I have to have a reason. I couldn't just decide I want to look at my neighbor's. Same thing.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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