North Country doctors convene in panel for those hesitant on COVID-19 vaccination

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QUEENSBURY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Now months into COVID-19 vaccine availability, the North Country faces an issue other parts of the state and the nation face in tow.

Where once there was an excess of demand, now there is more supply. And that’s with large swaths of the population still unvaccinated.

The hesitation to get a coronavirus vaccine was the subject of a panel on Tuesday, hosted by the Adirondack and North Country chambers of commerce and featuring medical authorities from Glens Falls Hospital, Hudson Headwaters Health Network, Adirondack Health and the Adirondacks Accountable Care Organization (AACO).

Every voice on the panel had a story to tell, with the hope that those stories would help change some minds.

“We hope that your takeaway, when this concludes in an hour, will be to become an ambassador to get (others) to get vaccinated,” said North Country Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Garry Douglas.

By the numbers

An early question aimed at Dr. Wouter Rietsema, Vice President of Population Health and Information Services at AACO, was what the numbers really looked like in terms of who is vaccinated and who isn’t.

Rietsema’s answer was a strong start, with a bit of a drawback.

“I think we hit hesitancy before the rest of the state,” he said, “but the rest of the state is definitely catching up.”

Early on, North Country vaccination efforts led the state, thanks to both hard work from smaller hospitals and a lower total population in northern counties.

Rietsema put the vaccination total for the North Country at around 57 percent of eligible people as of Tuesday.

According to data from the New York State Department of Health, the state comes in at around 49 percent of those eligible, as of Tuesday.

Rietsema said the numbers were highest in Essex and Clinton counties, both in the 60s as well.

Different ages, different opinions

Rietsema also said the slowdown in vaccination interest has lined up with a changing demographic in terms of who needs it. The elderly were the first group targeted for vaccination in New York.

So, as rates slow, those who still need their shots skew ever-younger.

“I’m not sure that’s all hesitancy,” Rietsema said. “Some of it is availability.”

That’s an issue county governments have spoken about as well. Warren County is currently launching a program to bring vaccines to workplaces for those unable to schedule an appointment around work.

But Rietsema said he sees two main reasons driving the decision not to seek the needle. One is fear.

“Fear of the government interfering, fear of impact on women of childbearing ages. Fears, many of which might not be scientifically based, but are real nonetheless.”

The second reason Rietsema sees is a laissez-faire attitude.

“As you get into the younger populations, you see that; they don’t perceive that they’re at much risk of COVID overall.”

Urging those who don’t think COVID will effect them to get vaccinated anyway was a problem echoed by many in the call.

Dr. William Borgos, Chief Medical Officer at Hudson Headwaters Health Network, said he sees primary care doctors as having a big role in getting that conversation going, in terms of both general information and one-on-one conversations.

“I think when people are coming in for their regular visits, it’s a perfect time for us to sit down and say, ‘priority 1, are you vaccinated,'” Borgos said. “‘And if not, tell me what we can talk about; what questions can I answer for you?'”

Borgos said that many of those coming to HHHN offices are already vaccinated, but there are always those who are not. Convincing them to get a vaccine is an effect they hope to see spread.

Dr. Beth Bartos, Family Medicine Specialist for Adirondack Health, said she sees hesitation come from uncertainty over whether what’s going into their bodies is actually safe.

“That’s a question I heard every day, even when I’m not at work,” she said.

Some of the fears Bartos has heard dip into the world of conspiracy.

“One patient was adamant that they’re changing the DNA, and it’s experimental,” she said. “The whole idea that it was given emergency passage is a big problem for a subset of people.”

Bartos said her goal in those conversations is to set those matters straight. The vaccines do not alter DNA, but rather use RNA to teach the body what to look out for.

Doctor-tested, doctor-approved

And the vaccines aren’t any more experimental than any other commonly-used vaccine; Less, in fact. Rietsema said the safety concerns around COVID-19 in general have made all the difference when looking at this vaccine.

“There is no vaccine that we currently use that has been used more broadly and has been looked at more closely from a safety perspective,” he said.

He also brought up the now 9 months of data stemming from initial studies from the vaccines, speaking to the efficacy they show.

Dr. Geoffrey Serfilippi, a pulmonology specialist at Glens Falls Hospital, said there’s an importance to understanding that the science that doctors have used to guarantee the vaccine’s power goes back farther than some might realize.

“I think most people aren’t aware that genetic-based vaccination research really started in the ’90s,” he said.

That research started with DNA, but has come to focus more on RNA over time, he added.

“I think this is really a story of where preparation meets opportunity,” Serfilippi said. “That’s why it seems like these vaccines were rushed, when reality, they were already in progress.”

Serfilippi also talked about booster shots, and whether herd immunity would be enough to eventually wipe COVID-19 off the map; or rather just enough to tone it down.

“I know work is already being done (…) looking at what should be included in these booster vaccinations,” he said.

Questions around those boosters are still up in the air, but Serfilippi said his personal and professional opinion was a strong yes.

The message moving ahead

One of the final questions brought up on Tuesday was brought to Dr. Bartos. A viewer asked what the argument to counter someone who insists they don’t need the vaccine due to the high survivability rate.

Bartos’ answer was that it’s not just about one person.

“Which of the 0.1 percent, or whatever their statistic is, are you willing to not protect against?”

There’s also the fact that, even for those who get coronavirus and survive, side effects can last indeterminably long after the virus leaves the body.

Dr. Serfilippi added that he’s seen an increasing number of young people in the ICU during his work with coronavirus there. He also pointed out that the longer people go without a vaccination, the more that coronavirus can strain – and has already strained – the national healthcare system.

“1 in 100 is a big number,” added Dr. Rietsema. “How many of you, if you were offered a 1 in 100 chance of winning the lottery, how much would you invest?”

Tuesday’s panel was hosted by the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce and the North Country Chamber of Commerce. View the panel in full online.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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