The Next Conspiracy Theory: “I Got Covid From the Vaccine.”
In this dark age of misinformation (and disinformation), there are certain moments that are as predictable as winter snow. They are a function of the singular moment in time in which we’re living. The perfect storm now swirls in America of unchecked social media, a clickbait-driven “traditional” media, a bitterly divided political landscape, and record levels of unemployment. This is the same soil from which our national vaccine effort is about to sprout. And with it will come the now-requisite misinformation. The likeliest lament coming in 2021: “I got Covid from the vaccine.”
In a recent phone interview with Dr. Joseph Rahimian, an infectious disease doctor who has been on the forefront of the Covid pandemic in New York City, the expert shared his thoughts on what he can only describe as “inevitable.” “Given the number of new cases that we’re seeing and the large number of people who are about to be rapidly vaccinated, it is inevitable that someone who has recently acquired Covid and is asymptomatic will receive a vaccine and then get Covid symptoms,” said Rahimian. “This will likely happen multiple times, and some of those people will assume that it was the shot that caused the disease.”
“Something similar happens with the flu,” concurs Dr. Matt Love, internal medicine specialist at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. “People get the shot, then come down with one of the two hundred plus other viruses which can cause flu-like symptoms and blame the vaccine."
Both doctors point to two prevailing factors that make this vaccine rollout different from vaccination programs of the past. First, the Covid vaccine is now being distributed during a time of great distrust of public information. Our political climate is polarized, and misinformation is more rampant than before. This was not the case, say, with the polio vaccine. As Dr. Love points out, “There was great trust in the media then. When media giants like Walter Cronkite came on the news, the whole country listened to what he had to say.”
Second, Dr. Rahimian reminds us that, “This is the fastest vaccine rollout in history, which is naturally going to lead to some skepticism.” The speed of the vaccine development (and distribution) can be credited to advances in science, technology, and genetic mapping. But it is that same speed — mostly, computing speed — that is responsible for the virality of misinformation that we, as a society, find ourselves now battling. And, unfortunately, in a media landscape that is driven by clicks and sensational baiting, it will only take a few of these “I got it from the vaccine” cases to spark a larger media flame. Coming to our screens in 2021 are patients who will swear up-and-down that they got the virus from the inoculation itself.
The current climate is already birthing a glut of vaccine myths. This writer’s own hairdresser, a New York City stylist, told me that “a lot of my clients think the vaccine will make them sterile.” She may not be a doctor, but she has her ear to the ground in a way that most of us do not. Among the other lies overheard in her chair: “Fauci killed a lot of people with previous vaccines,” “A hundred-fifty people died out of 2,000 people who got the test vaccine,” and “You can’t take it if you have (seasonal) allergies.”
Dr. Rahimian assures us, though, that “None of those things are true. And there is no evidence that the vaccine can give you Covid. Cases of adverse reactions are fairly minimal and no more than prior vaccines.” Dr. Love is planning on getting the vaccine as soon as it is available, and his wife, an emergency medicine specialist, has already received the vaccine. He believes that “it is imperative that patients know that we as doctors have taken it and feel it is safe to recommend.”
That said, “doctor-recommended” could potentially be an ineffective message in the sea of misinformation already circulating. And so what is sure to come are patients who truly believe that they got the disease from the inoculation. Their paranoia is likely to be exploited by the media. And that sector of the American public prone to believing web-born conspiracy theories will choose to overlook the medical boards, scientists, ethicists, and governing bodies that have cleared the vaccine for use. The “vaccine hesitancy” battle has begun, and it is critical that we bring as much correct information to the public as we can.