Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccine gain traction among Mississippians on social media

Updated: Dec. 15, 2020 at 8:42 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Even though it’ll be months before most Mississippians can get the coronavirus vaccine, a quick scroll through social media shows several don’t want it because they don’t trust it.

On Monday, when State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs and other state health department officials were first in the state to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Facebook experts weighed in on the agency’s social media post.

Several claimed the event was staged because the photos posted on Facebook didn’t show needles piercing the skin.

At least one person claimed the wrong syringe was used for the procedure.

Dozens more asserted that the person administering the doses should have been wearing gloves and didn’t, even though neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration require that.

COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Mississippi, and is shipping to hospitals and nursing homes now. The vaccine will be...

Posted by Mississippi State Department of Health on Monday, December 14, 2020

“Many were moved to tears yesterday when they saw their colleagues getting this historic vaccine for the first time, our weary physicians who were on the front line felt relief collectively that helped us on the way, and then they began to feel disheartened, as they saw the public rush to judgment, rush to cry out about someone not wearing gloves, or the needle didn’t go on the arm,” said Dr. Jennifer Bryan, who serves as the chair of the board of trustees for the Mississippi State Medical Association. “It’s sad.”

The biggest claim emerging from this was one echoed by a state lawmaker earlier this month: are microchips inside the vaccine so the government can track you?

“If we were to figure out how to inject microscopic technology into you, you’d have all kinds of rejection issues and responses,” Bryan said. “But I urge people to use some common sense and think about the cell phone in their hand that they take everywhere they go. There is really no known reason that the government would need to develop some kind of crazy technology to track you. It’s in your hand already. It’s in your cell phone.”

On Facebook, some users claim vaccination cards -- which will be issued to those who take the vaccine to keep track of their doses -- will instead be used to control people and restrict admittance to businesses or countries.

Historically, some immunization and vaccination records have been used to determine if someone can fly to certain countries -- most notably yellow fever, according to Bryan -- but that is also standard procedure when it comes to vaccinating a large population, especially with a vaccine that requires more than one dose to be effective.

“Having a vaccination certificate, there’s an electronic one on each one of us. The state already has it, the school children, to go to school. But also when you get your pneumonia shot, it uploads just so that you don’t get 10 pneumonia shots next year,” Bryan said.

The end result for these theories is mistrust toward a vaccine few in the state have even taken.

3 On Your Side asked six people in Jackson if they’d take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to the public sometime next year.

Three agreed to talk on camera about their reasons.

“I’ve had a total of five people with my family that have had it,” said Jackson resident Brenda Gale, who said she wants to take the vaccine to protect herself from the virus. “I know several people, friends and associates that have passed from it.”

Sinclair Means said even though he knows that the full extent of long-term side effects from the vaccine aren’t yet known, he plans to take it.

“I don’t think that our government will intentionally and knowingly give us something that would cause us harm,” Means said, pointing to the recent approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration.

Means and Gale, both of whom are Black, said they trust the vaccine, but not everybody does.

A recent NBC News poll showed around fifty percent of Black adults said they won’t take the vaccine, something health experts say reflects distrust from generations of experimentation on people of color and doctors who dismiss their concerns.

Bryan acknowledged that appealing to Black Mississippians, who disproportionately carry the greatest risk of complications from a COVID-19 diagnosis due to pre-existing conditions, remains a challenge.

“We want to be that source of trusted information,” Bryan said. “Trust the person you go to church with, that you go to work with, that position, that health care professional that you have trusted to guide you with your cancer treatment, with your heart disease, with your children’s diagnoses. These people are not going to lie to you, they’re not going to steer you wrong.”

Jackson resident Marianna Stone, whose husband works as a resident physician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said she doesn’t fear the procedure or what lies ahead because of what the virus has already taken from so many families across the nation.

“We can trust these people, they have years of experience, they are experts in their fields. I trust them more than I’m going to trust something I read on Facebook,” Stone said.

Two people 3 On Your Side talked to on Tuesday said they would not get it because they’re still skeptical about its performance and how it would affect the body, and declined to talk on-camera.

Bryan said that kind of skepticism is healthy and expected, considering how quickly these vaccines were developed, but said that’s a far cry from the claims still circulating and being shared online.

“We are not all collectively in on a conspiracy or a hoax. The virus is deadly. It is spreading like wildfire, and it is killing our families and our friends. And the vaccine is our only hope to get out of this mess,” Bryan said.

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