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Local officials face backlash against vaccinations from politicians and the public

Correction: When this segment aired, we referred to an analysis by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press that found 49 state and local public health officials either resigned, quit, or were fired since this spring, in part because of political pressures around COVID. We should have pointed to an updated analysis from Kaiser and the AP, which indicates that number is now 181 officials since the spring. We regret the error.

Millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be distributed soon, but how many people are willing to take the vaccine and is politics hindering the response? William Brangham spoke with Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, who recently resigned as the health officer in Shawnee County, Kansas, and Dr. Eva Galvez, of the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Oregon, to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's turn back to the pandemic now.

    While cases and deaths are at all time highs, and hospitals in many states are nearing capacity, a newly approved vaccine is being distributed nationwide. But will people take the vaccine? And is politics hampering our response?

    William Brangham talks with two voices on the front lines.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, millions of doses of COVID vaccines are expected to be distributed next week.

    And while polls show that a growing number of Americans are willing to take the vaccine, there are still large numbers of people who say they won't.

    Hampering that effort is the burnout and harassment of public health workers across the country. A recent analysis done by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press found 49 state and local officials resigned, quit or were fired since the spring, citing those types of pressures.

    Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino just quit as the main health officer of Shawnee County, Kansas, citing political interference. And Dr. Eva Galvez is a family doctor at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Northwest Oregon.

    Doctors, great to have you both on the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    Dr. Pezzino, to you first.

    You resigned your position recently after county officials apparently started tampering with your public health guidance. Can you just explain why that, as you say, was what you called the last straw?

  • Gianfranco Pezzino:

    Sure.

    It was the last straw because it was not the first time that it happened. The state law in Kansas gives the Board of County Commissioners the authority to accept, reject, or modify the public health emergency orders from the local health officers. So, in the past, they had already made modifications, against my advice.

    A couple of weeks ago, they also set up a technical advisory group, which I strongly supported, with prominent physicians and other experts from the community to also chime in and weigh in those decisions. And, despite that, when they met on Monday, they decided to modify my most recent order, against the opinion of that group.

    So, I thought it was important to send a message that public health containment measures and prevention measures should be left to public health professionals who have been trained to do that, and they can base those decisions on data and facts, and not to locally elected policy-makers who are not trained and have no background in public health.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Dr. Galvez, to you.

    We have this obviously very good news about a safe and effective vaccine that is starting to be distributed. You work primarily with the Hispanic and Latino community in Oregon. We know this is a community that has been disproportionately hurt by this virus.

    What is your sense from talking to patients there? How willing are people to take a vaccine if it is offered?

  • Eva Galvez:

    What I am hearing from my patients is that there is a lot of fear about the safety of the vaccine.

    Many of my patients have many questions about whether or not it is safe, whether or not there are long-term risks and side effects. So, I'm really hearing a lot of hesitancy from both patients that I serve and the entire community.

  • William Brangham:

    And where does that — it sounds like some type of misinformation they're getting. I mean, we know, again, it's early days, but this seems to be a well-tested, safe, and effective vaccine. So where are they getting that information from?

  • Eva Galvez:

    Well, I think it's important for people to understand that there is not a lot of information that my patients have access to that is reliable and accurate.

    Much of the information that we see about the vaccine is on platforms and in a language that many of my patients just don't have access to, or they can't read, or it's not at a literacy level that they can understand.

    And so, when you have lack of information, what happens is people tend to turn to social media platforms or word of mouth. And, often, those sources are not reliable. So, what ends up happening is, you end up cultivating much myths, often rumors, misinformation.

    And that just continues to be spread among the community. And it just increases the amount of anxiety and fear. And you add that to a community that's already fearful oftentimes of recommendations that are coming from the federal government. In the last few years, we have seen anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant policy and actions, and this has really stoked a sense of fear and mistrust.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Pezzino, you're obviously, working in a different community, in Topeka, Kansas, than Dr. Galvez is, but same question to you.

    Is it your sense that, once the vaccine becomes readily available, that people in Kansas around Topeka, will be open and willing to take it?

  • Gianfranco Pezzino:

    You know, I think it will be a very interesting phenomenon to watch and see how it goes.

    My anticipation, my prediction is that, once people start seeing that the vaccine is there, is around, and is available, and that their leaders are going to take it and that it's safe enough, I think there will be a high demand for that vaccine.

    But the problem of the misinformation is absolutely — it's a tragedy within the tragedy that we are all living in the pandemic. It's — the level of misinformation and the damage that that misinformation has done in the last nine to 12 months, it's something that we will probably only fully understand years down the road.

    And I think the most important thing in my mind at this point is that leaders get together, and they all speak with one unified voice. That's very important. People cannot be bombarded with conflicting messages telling them to do different things.

    I think we all need to speak with a unified voice. If there are disagreements, let's talk about that before we go public. But once we talk to the public, the public must hear one unified voice and a consistent message.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Galvez, to you as well.

    How do you suggest we ought to combat this, to both get better messaging out, but also to touch and to reach communities that are often difficult to reach?

  • Eva Galvez:

    Well, I agree with what Dr. Pezzino has said about a unified message coming from our public health officials and our leaders.

    I believe that those messages need to be coming, however, from trusted community members, so people who look and speak like them. I think it's really important that leaders from the Latino community and marginalized communities are actually providing the message.

    I think that the message, when it comes from people that they trust, is going to be much more effective. But I also think that a message needs to also be coming along with some action. As I said earlier and as you mentioned earlier, many of the disparities that we are seeing in the community are being driven by policies and by systemic inequities.

    And those need to be addressed, alongside with the campaign and the education about vaccines. So, we really need to work hard and begin to gain the trust of the Latino community by showing them that we care about their families, and really begin to put in place some policies that really will protect our families in the future.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Pezzino, lastly to you.

    You touched on this issue. You're seeming to work right at this juncture, this uncomfortable marriage of politics and public health. What is your sense of how — why is it that things got so politicized in this pandemic?

  • Gianfranco Pezzino:

    Oh, I wish I knew.

    I think it really started from the top leadership at the national level, in — when wearing a mask was turned from a very simple century-old public health prevention measure into a political badge, that was a breaking point, I think, for many people.

    And then everything else followed from there. I think the fact that there was a message of division, instead of unity, coming from Washington didn't help. It didn't help when the message reached the states, and that, within the states, individual localities, like those in Oregon and those in Topeka and other rural communities in Kansas.

    So, unfortunately, things now are seen just along a division line and almost party line in many cases. And, again, that's absolutely tragic. We have got to understand that what public health is recommending to do, is asking people to do is proven and effective and evidence-based.

    It has nothing to do with politics, has nothing to do with wanting to curtail people's freedoms. It's something that public health has learned how to do it over centuries and centuries of practice.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino and Dr. Eva Galvez, thank you both very much for being here.

  • Gianfranco Pezzino:

    Thank you for having us.

  • Eva Galvez:

    Thank you.

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