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The North Bay — Sonoma, Marin and Napa Counties — region has the highest vaccine hesitancy rate of the entire Bay Area at 23%, according to a recent vaccine hesitancy survey conducted by the Bay Area Council.

About 57% of those polled said they have not been vaccinated and 21% said they “definitely or probably” won’t get vaccinated. 

Vaccine hesitancy amid the pause of the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was the focus of the county’s community COVID-19 briefing held on Wednesday, April 14. Use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused following the report that six women experienced a rare form of blood clots after they received the one-dose vaccine.

When asked why they wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, 19% said they weren’t worried about COVID-19. Fourteen percent said they’re already healthy, 12% said they fear the vaccine’s negative side effects and another 12% said they simply do not trust the vaccine and will rely on their own immune system.

Sonoma County doctors Dr. Urmila Shende, Dr. Brian Prystowsky and Dr. Jenny Fish addressed vaccine hesitancy and the concerns with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“Six people (six females under the age of 50) out of 6.8 million were diagnosed with these rare blood clots, which are called cerebral sinus venous thrombosis, a very rare type of clot. We know that this is a very rare condition so for people who have had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, again the numbers are significantly against any problem happening,” Shende said. “Six out of 6.8 million is less than one in one million chance of any problem in this respect, but there are certainly things that people should look out for. Specifically, people should look out for symptoms of severe headache, difficulty breathing/shortness of breath, leg pain and abdominal pain within one to three weeks after the vaccine.”

Folks who experience those symptoms one to three weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should contact their regular physician, or if there are significant concerns, to visit a local emergency room.

Shende stressed that in general people have done well with receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“It’s important to be cautious and to watch out for symptoms, but for the most part I think people are going to be OK,” Shende said.

District 2 Supervisor David Rabbitt said he himself got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I recognize that more than 6.8 million people in this country have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so even if a clear connection is established between those negative outcomes and the vaccines, the fact is that they are very rare so I’m personally not too concerned. What I am concerned about is encouraging people to get the vaccine when they can,” Rabbitt said.

Later in the briefing, Rabbitt introduced Prystowsky, a Sonoma County pediatrician, who discussed and debunked the common myths about the COVID vaccine.

“I think when we talk a little bit about some of these myths or reasons that people use to in some ways justify fear, it’s just been a really rough year and I think a lot people have been really struggling with coronavirus disease and I think when a lot of times when people are scared they find things to justify their fears,” Prystowsky said. “So, when you say for example can you get coronavirus from the vaccine, you cannot. There is no coronavirus in the vaccine. The vaccines are formulated in a very brilliant way. Those mNRA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) have an instructional manual for the spike protein, which is on the surface of coronavirus. Sometimes I’ll use the analogy that it is like a hat that coronavirus always wears. So, you have this instructional manual for the hat that coronavirus always wears in the vaccine so that your body learns to identify that hat and when they see it and they know that it doesn’t belong here.”

In terms of concerns with common vaccine side effects such as muscle aches, fever and chills, Prystowsky said if people experience side effects then generally that’s a good thing because it’s a sign that your immune system is responding and is at work.

“Your body is responding and working on protection,” he said in regard to the most common side effects. “When you’re talking about the safety of these vaccines, it really does outweigh any risks, particularly when you’re comparing it to the risks associated with coronavirus disease.”

Prystowsky and Fish said for those who are hesitant about getting vaccinated it’s not about convincing them, rather it’s about building trust and a space to speak with doctors and medical professionals who can answer questions and address concerns.

Sonoma County resident Yessenia Zepeda was one such individual who was at first hesitant to get a vaccine, however, after hearing more information from health care professionals who built that sense of trust, she changed her mind and got vaccinated.

“I was hesitant because I was just not having enough information on the science behind it, especially when it was new and not knowing any people that had been vaccinated within my community and around me,” Zepeda said. “What changed my mind was just having more information and hearing directly from health care professionals who built that trust. I did lose a family member to COVID and with being a mother I want to take whatever measures or precautions that are out there to keep my little one healthy and keep myself healthy.”

She said she got her vaccine at the César Chávez Day event at the Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Santa Rosa.      

She said seeing others in her own community get vaccinated was the last little push that led to her decision to get vaccinated.

“I’m glad I did it. I want to keep her (her daughter) and my parents healthy,” Zepeda said.

Starting April 15, vaccine eligibility will open to everyone 16 and older in the county and throughout the state and while this is an exciting milestone Shende said there isn’t enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone yet.

Shende, the county’s vaccine chief, said the county’s vaccine supply is looking a bit flat for now. She also encouraged patience and said folks who want a vaccine will be able to get one it just may take some time.

As of April 14, the county has administered 369,985 doses of vaccine. 82,977 Sonoma County residents are partially vaccinated and a total of 149,425 residents are fully vaccinated.

Despite the flat supply, the county is still outpacing the state and other counties of similar size in vaccine roll out.

In terms of COVID cases, as of April 14 the county cast rate per day per 100,000 people is 3.8% down from last week’s figure of 4.3%

The current testing positivity rate is 1.5% and the positivity rate in the lowest quartile of the healthy places index is 1.9%.

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