Amber Schmitt prepares a COVID-19 vaccine

Amber Schmitt prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Mercy Washington Tuesday, Dec. 15. 

By the time many of you read this, health care workers at Mercy Hospital Washington will have received the first COVID-19 vaccine doses locally. Hallelujah!

Hopefully, the debut of the vaccine will mark the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic and the collective nightmare we’ve all endured.

The arrival of the vaccine, however, is just the first step in defeating the virus, which has infected more than 16 million Americans and killed 300,000 nationwide. As Dr. Randall Williams, Missouri’s top health official, stated last month, “It is not the vaccine that will get us there — it’s vaccinations.”

That is the next reality check in this equation — when we finally halt the pandemic will depend in large part on how many people get immunized.

Surveys indicate the majority of Americans are ready and willing to be immunized. Nonetheless, many others are hesitant about a coronavirus vaccine. Fortunately, few are truly dug in against getting one, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. They can be persuaded.

Hesitancy is often driven more by caution than by staunch opposition to getting vaccinated. Some are understandably worried about potential side effects. Even some front-line health workers are cautious over being the “guinea pigs” in the vaccination rollout.

Heidi Lucas, state director for the Missouri Nurses Association, acknowledged some nurses were nervous about getting the vaccine. She told the Missouri Independent nurses need to be confident in taking the vaccine so the general public will feel confident in taking it as well.

We agree — people generally trust nurses and other front-line health care workers. If they get on board with vaccinations, the public will likely follow their lead. People are more likely to get vaccinated if they get more information from sources they trust.

But the opposite is also true. “If we politicize the vaccine like we politicized masks, we are in massive trouble,” Lucas warned.

Anyone who uses social media knows there is already a cache of misinformation about the virus including, astonishingly, that it is a hoax. So it’s not surprising myths and conspiracy theories also abound about the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of the conspiracy theories can be attributed to the vaccine’s record pace of development and to the government’s involvement in the rollout. Most of these conspiracy theories are as ridiculous as the hoax myth.

To combat misinformation, the state of Missouri has created a website that explicitly states “COVID-19 is not a hoax and neither is the vaccine.” The website has a section called “Rumor Control,” which specifically refutes many of the myths circulating on social media. These include claims that you can get COVID-19 from the vaccine; the vaccine has a tracking chip inside of it; and Bill and Melinda Gates are using the vaccine to collect your biometric data, among other outlandish conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately, the audience for conspiracy theories seems to be growing. So does distrust in government, which is largely responsible for the record-setting vaccine creation and rollout.

People’s reluctance to get inoculated against disease was a public health challenge before the pandemic. Doubts and suspicions over all vaccines have become more widespread despite the fact that they are proven safe and effective. The anti-vaccination movement will continue to use social media to spread misinformation and distrust. That is the world we live in now.

But if clear thinking prevails, and there is effective messaging from credible messengers, vaccine hesitancy can be reduced.

President Trump can help with the messaging. Earlier this week he signaled his approval of the first vaccine administered in the United States. “Congratulations USA! Congratulations World!”

We need more of that encouragement from our president to overcome vaccination hesitancy. If enough people get vaccinated, we can keep people out of the hospital, get people back to work, get the economy humming again, and get children back to school. And we can save lives.