Mary Atkinson discusses COVID-19 vaccine myths, medical exemptions

NORTH PERTH – Huron-Perth physicians recently released a joint statement on vaccine exemptions and common myths circulating about COVID-19 vaccinations. On Sept. 27 Mary Atkinson, executive director at North Perth Family Health Team (NPFHT), discussed the vaccine exemptions and myths with the Listowel Banner.

The only medical exemptions recognized by physicians are pericarditis or myocarditis, both of which are extremely rare conditions. A proven and severe allergic reaction to a previously-administered COVID vaccine may be a reason for exemption, but Atkinson said several allergists are working with patients and giving them a controlled dosage over a two-to-three-hour period of time and patients have to be assessed by an allergist to determine whether the vaccine can be given.

“As far as the pericarditis and the myocarditis are concerned, again that would be a specialist who would work with them so some of them may not be able to get it but at least they can be assessed as to whether they can receive it,” she said.

Myths surrounding COVID-19 contraction and negative outcomes

“We know now that the prevalent strain of COVID is the Delta variant and they know that it is at least two or three times more transmissible and we’re seeing, just from evidence in the United States where there are low vaccination rates, children are getting sick and they are being hospitalized,” said Atkinson. “So the fact that it is more transmissible and also the fact that people who do get COVID are more likely to end up in hospital and death.”

She said the vaccine hesitancy, waiting and assuming that if COVID-19 is contracted the symptoms may be mild has a risk factor that includes death and acute hospitalization.

“I hope that people would talk to their physicians or their healthcare providers about some of those risks and maybe that will move them on to become less hesitant and take the vaccine,” she said.

Atkinson acknowledged there are some people they are probably not going to convince.

“I think we are somewhat resigned to that,” she said. “We know the level of misinformation that is out in the market. One of them was a Canadian study that had a huge mathematical error in terms of side effects which has since been refuted but it’s that kind of misinformation… people who are diehard anti-vaxxers will always seek out information to support (their view).”

Atkinson said the NPFHT has been providing patients with clear information on vaccinations and being transparent about the science.

“There have been over six billion doses given worldwide and we have not seen an increase in the type of reactions or… adverse events that we have seen,” she said. “All vaccines, no matter what medication you get, it always comes with a risk.”

Myths surrounding vaccination and pregnancy

Atkinson acknowledged that there is always concern surrounding pregnancy for parents.

“We know that the trials were not done on pregnant women but we also know from real-world data that there has been a significant number of pregnant women who have been vaccinated,” she said. “The one thing we do know is that the vaccine does not cross the placental barrier when a woman is pregnant which is what they need to know, but what it does do is it does confer antibody support for the infant if the mother is breastfeeding so those are the kind of things we want the moms to know.”

Atkinson knows several pregnant women waited until their baby was born before they got vaccinated.

“We are certainly not seeing this group come out as anti-vaxxers,” she said. “They just want the information.”

Myths about the science behind the vaccine

The first myth Atkinson debunked was that the vaccine will alter DNA. She pointed out that the mRNA vaccine is modelled on the coronavirus but it is not the virus.

“What it does is it signals to your body cells to start the immune response,” she said. “So it does not alter your DNA. It does not interact with your DNA. It sets off an immune response that you want to fight the virus.”

The next scientific myth she spoke to was that the vaccine does not prevent transmission of COVID-19. She connected this explanation to the level of immunity someone who is vaccinated has against the virus.

“We know the vaccines, while they are not as effective against the Delta (variant), they are still very effective,” said Atkinson. “They are more effective even than the flu vaccine that we get every year. So if you were exposed your body would start to make an immune response, so the chances of you transmitting it are lower. Yes, vaccinated people can transmit but the fact that you have a lower viral load because of your immune response, chances of you passing it is certainly much less than if you weren’t vaccinated.”

She also tackled the myth that vaccines were produced with unethically-derived cell lines.

“The vaccine was not produced using embryonic cells,” said Atkinson. “The Catholic Church has come out saying that the vaccines are safe and there is no moral exemption for them. We also know that for… the Muslim faith, it was not made with any pork. It’s probably the safest vaccine that has ever been developed in terms of what is inside of it.”

Benefits of vaccination

As vaccination rates in this area crack 80 per cent of all eligible people over age 12 being fully vaccinated, Atkinson spoke to the positive trends Ontario is seeing not happening in other provinces with higher caseloads.

“What we are seeing is that in Ontario, while we are still seeing cases, anywhere between 80 to 90 per cent of those are unvaccinated or at the very least partially vaccinated, so they don’t have quite the immune response,” she said. “We have not gone into lockdown this surge. When you consider our neighbours in Saskatchewan and Alberta who did relax a lot of the COVID restrictions… I think we’re seeing the benefits of the vaccination just by the sheer fact that we don’t have high numbers, we don’t have a huge surge in our critical care units so to me that speaks volumes and also the wearing of masks (is important).”

Atkinson pointed out the low number of cases of flu or colds last winter.

“We’re starting to see that start to come back up because kids are back in school and there is more opening up,” she said. “The mask is probably one of the best effects you can have in terms of protecting yourself and others so the benefits of the vaccination will allow us to get back to some level of normalcy and start being able to be out and about more often. Social isolation has been extremely difficult for a lot of our patients.”

Atkinson said she does not feel it’s onerous to wear a mask.

“It really isn’t,” she said. “If it means you can be out and you are protecting yourself and others, I see that as a no-brainer for our community.”

The final piece of information Atkinson felt it was important to share is that every staff member in the clinic is voluntarily 100 per cent vaccinated.

“I think that really speaks volumes that we as healthcare providers very strongly believe in the vaccination,” she said.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter