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Meet The UC Doctor Trying To Change Minds Skeptical Of The COVID Vaccine

Dr. Louito Edje has lost four family members to COVID-19. She says she's committed to making sure people don't regret not getting the vaccine.
Dr. Louito Edje has lost four family members to COVID-19. She says she's committed to making sure people don't regret not getting the vaccine.

Vaccines for the deadly COVID-19 virus have begun rolling out across the country. Health care workers are at the front of the line to receive the two-dose vaccine, and other people will soon be phased into getting it.

But what about the people who don't want to get vaccinated? A Cincinnati doctor hopes to dispel myths about the vaccine and persuade people to eventually get the shot.

A Dr. Does PR

Dr. Louito Edje from the University of Cincinnati is on a public relations blitz — CNBC, TMZ, BET — because not only is she a rare Black female doctor during a pandemic that's disproportionately impacting Black people, she's also part of the Moderna vaccine trial. After her second dose, she became pretty sure she didn't get the placebo.

"I had a lead arm and it lasted about 24 hours and not much longer than that," she said. "I was able to continue working." 

She feels fine now and says the risk of being in a trial group was worth it to her because she's lost four family members to COVID-19.

"I think doing things like this, being available to help dispel myths, is extremely important," she said. "I would have loved to be in line, I would have loved to turn the hands of time back and stand in line for the vaccine with them (my family), but I can't do that. I don't want anyone else to regret not having the vaccine."

Edje is committed to doing interviews and community outreach to let people know the vaccine is safe for nearly all people. But she's got a big task in front of her.

The Uphill Battle

During the week of Christmas, Findlay Market saw a steady buzz of last-minute shoppers, delivery drivers, and people waiting for the nearby soup kitchen to open, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Many of them said they had no interest in taking the vaccine, though for different reasons that range from distrust of the medical community and vaccines to reliance on misinformation. 

During Christmas week at Findlay Market, many people said they're hesitating about taking the vaccine.
Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
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During Christmas week at Findlay Market, many people said they're hesitating about taking the vaccine.

Edje knows she's facing an uphill battle.

Optics from the government, which has in some cases made the vaccine political, have not helped.  For instance, calling the race for a vaccine Operation Warp Speed, she says, makes it seem like researchers started at square one, when really, there was at least two decades of coronavirus research to build on.

"So in the analogy that I have for the vaccine, the one I use is the cake," she explained. "So essentially, the cake has been baked for those 20 years, and essentially the last nine to 11 months have really been spent trying to find the flavor for the icing." 

With her own experience in medicine and with the vaccine trial, Edje is dispelling myths and misinformation about the vaccine, like this one, from Stacey Dworak of Covington:

"It's scary at the end of the day. I also am a person that doesn't really get flu shots," Dworak said while taking a quick break from a shop where she works at Findlay Market.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Is Not Like The Flu Shot

Edje says the vaccine does ot inject any amount of the virus into people. Instead, doctors were able to focus on the spike proteins coming out of the virus, making the vaccine based on mRNA, which acts like a playbook, helping the body recognize and combat the real virus if exposed. 

"There is zero virus in the mRNA vaccines, both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines," she said. 

Google, Social Media Do Not Trump Medical Expertise

Then there's people like James Murray, a West Virginia delivery driver who was making a stop at Findlay Market and not wearing a mask. He says he had the flu and pneumonia in 2009 and then he turned to the internet for more information about COVID-19.

"I Googled COVID-19 and I Googled the flu and it's the same symptoms, which I've already had. I'm not afraid of something I already had," he said.

The flu and COVID-19 do have some of the same symptoms but they're not the same. COVID-19 is more contagious and more deadly. Johns Hopkins says around three times as many people have died of COVID-19 this year than the years when the flu had been most deadly.

Edje says unreliable websites and social media are negatively influencing what people think they know about the virus.

"I think social media is like a Rorschach test," she said. "What you see, a lot of times can be what you want to see. And it can be used for evil and it can be used for good." 

While she can't take disinformation off the internet, she says she and other medical professionals are trying to wield social media power for good, spreading the most accurate news possible about the vaccine and virus.

"So social media from that standpoint has allowed the message to be amplified," Edje said. "It can also amplify misinformation. And so I think the larger amplification that we have as a physician community, especially a physician community that looks like our patients, the more success we're going to have." 

Distrust Of The Medical Community

That last part about physicians looking like their patients can be especially important because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino people. They're 2.8 times more likely to die of the virus than white people, accord to the Centers for Disease Control.

A big factor in those numbers comes from underlying health conditions experienced at higher rates among those demographics, Edje said. And those health conditions are influenced by environmental factors, like accessibility to health care, food deserts and poverty.

But there are also some historical distrust issues among people of color and the medical community. 

Cincinnati artist Joe Bailey, who's Black, raised the issue of that distrust after grabbing a meal at Our Daily Bread, near Findlay Market.

Cincinnati Artist Joe Bailey says he may take the COVID-19 vaccine eventually, but currently has reservations about it. 
Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
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Cincinnati Artist Joe Bailey says he may take the COVID-19 vaccine eventually, but currently has reservations about it. 

"A lot of times the disenfranchised, the poor people, are often the guinea pigs for these vaccines," he said. "I'm going to wait on this and see how it goes. You got Johnson & Johnson with the baby powder, talcum powder. Roundup; we're finding out they knew about all the side effects."

Edje said there have been some major ethical violations in the medical community, such as the Tuskegee experiment, where hundreds of Black men in Alabama were unknowingly left with untreated syphilis for decades. And there were gynecological experiments conducted on enslaved people.

"There are all kinds of things that have sort of accumulated that are informing decisions and a fairly high suspicion about 'Why are they putting us in the front line right now to receive the vaccine? They didn't care then, why would they start caring now?' " she said, adding that times have changed since some of those major ethical violations.

"But there were a lot of things put into place since then, for example, Institutional Review boards, which are members of the community that look at potential trials and determine — before even a single person is involved in the study — whether that study violates any ethical code."

Closing The Gap

Some people in Hamilton County are already taking on the task of trying to address the misinformation about the vaccine. The Center for Closing the Health Gap hosted two hour-long town halls on Facebook about the virus and vaccine.

Doctors for Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Council Member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney all took part in answering questions.

But there are still people who are just too skeptical to want to take the vaccine, no matter how much outreach is done.

Michael White, a 60-year-old Cincinnati resident, was waiting in line at Our Daily Bread to get a hot meal the week of Christmas.

Cincinnati resident Michael White says he's not interested in taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
Credit Jolene Almendarez / WVXU
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Cincinnati resident Michael White says he's not interested in taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I ain't taking nothing I don't know nothing about," he said. "The president ain't take it, why am I gonna take it?"

White also said he distrusts what the medical community and government have said about the virus and its origin. He said there are no circumstances in which he'd get the vaccine.

When asked if the president taking the vaccine could sway him otherwise, White said, "No, because he's probably taking it to be a guinea pig."

Correction 12/29/20:Language has been modified to more accurately describe how mRNA works to combat the COVID-19 virus. 

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