Dr. Douglas Drevets recalls feeling a burst of optimism when the year began.
The state’s long and deadly battle against COVID-19 seemed to have turned a corner as Oklahoma emerged as one of the top states in vaccinating eligible populations.
But that wouldn’t last long.
Oklahoma, once in the top 10 states for getting residents vaccinated, is now 12th worst in the country with more than 57% of the state still unvaccinated.
“I think we are all tired and we feel extremely disappointed that we had an opportunity and lost it,” said Drevets, who is chief of infectious diseases at OU Health. “It was like watching a football game where we came out strong, got a couple scores up and then fell asleep and blew it.”
The consequences of the state’s relatively low vaccination rate is now playing out in crowded hospitals where once again overworked and overstressed emergency room staff tend to scores of Oklahomans, many on ventilators, fighting for their lives.
At the same time, doctors are waging their own war against misinformation as they try to convince vaccine-hesitant patients to get the shot.
In interviews with 10 medical professionals across the state, ranging from fertility specialists to general practitioners, doctors say bad or deliberately false information about COVID-19 and the vaccine still runs rampant.
But they said more can — and should — be done to counter misinformation and show the unvaccinated evidence-based science that the vaccines are effective and not dangerous.
“Most of their concerns are rooted in fear and ignorance,” said Dr. Eli Reshef, a senior physician at the INTEGRIS Bennett Fertility Institute. “Unfortunately it’s human nature that we respond more to fear and panic than reason … but it’s so paradoxical because it’s so clear how effective the vaccine is.”
Why Oklahomans Aren’t Getting Vaccinated
Dr. Summer Lepley, a primary-care doctor in Oklahoma City, said she’s seen patients who have cited repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories, such as microchips being implanted in the vaccines, that COVID-19 is a hoax or that vaccines are part of government or global effort to control the population.
But like the other doctors Oklahoma Watch interviewed, these concerns are outliers among the vaccine hesitant.
“Overall people are just concerned about their safety,” Lepley said, “which is why I try to encourage them as much as possible that the vaccines are safe and effective.”
Lepley’s experiences match a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation that found 53% of unvaccinated adults believe the vaccination poses a bigger health risk than potentially getting sick with COVID-19.
Drevets, who focuses on infectious diseases, said he regularly sees patients who have gotten bad information about the short- and long-term risks of the vaccine from unscientific sources, social media or talking to friends or family.
He said these people have a misinformed risk calculus.
Even with the surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the more contagious Delta variant, he said many patients still don’t realize how dangerous COVID-19, which has killed more than 9,000 Oklahomans in just under a year and half, truly is.
“They don’t see the urgency or it just doesn’t feel like a threat still,” he said. “But all you have to do is walk around in a COVID unit or intensive care unit right now to see what’s happening.”
Drevets said many have an oversized fear of the vaccine. The fact that the vaccine was developed so quickly — it was even named Operation Warp Speed by the Trump administration — has added fuel to anti-vaccination efforts that have long been at odds with the medical community.
“But the vaccine wasn’t just something that was cooked up out of nowhere last year,” he said. “We were able to go fast because we did decades of research on vaccines before that.”
The federal Food and Drug Administration gave strength to that argument this week by giving its approval to the Pfizer vaccine for individuals under 16. (The Pfizer vaccine previously, along with the other other vaccines being currently offered, has been cleared under the FDA’s emergency authorization — something that still requires rigorous evaluation of its safety and efficacy.)
National polling has found that more than one-third of unvaccinated adults say they were waiting on FDA approval before getting the shot. Though it might convince some who are on the fence, Drevets said he is skeptical this alone will lead to a significant surge of vaccinations.
“I think people will still say it was a rushed political decision and will just go on to the next excuse,” he said.
Reshef, who specializes in fertility issues, said it’s hard for doctors, such as himself, not to get too angry, exhausted and exacerbated by hearing the same misinformation or bad information day in and day out.
To reach patients, Reshef said doctors need to use compassion and understanding to find an opening, whether it’s by sharing personal stories or evidence-based data.
“It’s been shown that if you’re combative and self righteous, no matter how good your cause is – and this is a good cause to be self-righteous about – you are really going to create the opposite effect,” Reshef said. “You are going to turn people off.”
Dr. Bruce Dennis, an internal medicine specialist in Ada, agreed.
“It’s understandable that people are confused and frustrated,” he said. “People are getting misinformation and they are not trained to sort out good versus bad medical advice. That’s just not their wheelhouse, you know?”
Dennis said that’s why one-on-one talks between physicians and their vaccine-hesitant patients can pay off.
“If they are coming to us, they apparently are coming because they care what we have to say,” he said. “So we share what they pay us to share. If they have concerns, we respect that and try to reassure them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Lepley, the primary-care doctor in Oklahoma City, said data can be a turn off though to some, particularly those who have been overwhelmed with both good and bad information. She said she’s found success just talking about her and her family’s decision to get the vaccine.
“I’ll just share that my husband and I received the vaccine months ago when it first became available,” she said. “I’ll tell them I even got the vaccine when I was nursing my three-week-old baby so I feel that sharing my personal story and my family’s experience helps.”
But a large swath of the population doesn’t see their doctor on a regular basis. This is especially a problem among the uninsured or those who only see medical professionals during emergencies.
Dr. Sandra Gilliland, a pediatrician and director of clinical quality with Variety Care in Oklahoma City, added that doctors don’t need to be the only ones to do the convincing. She said her own patients, or their parents, have been able to sway their friends and family by sharing a mix of science-based reasoning and their own personal experiences.
“We’ve seen this play out with other vaccines, including the influenza and HPV vaccines and there has even been studies on that,” she said. “So I think there is something about that connection and people talking about their own experiences and working through their own experiences. Things like that can kinda clinch the deal.”
What More Can Be Done
Although vaccine hesitancy is a national problem, it is amplified in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma will need to see vast improvements to match states like Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine that already have about two-thirds of their population fully vaccinated.
But the governor’s office confirmed recently that there are no plans to try new strategies, such as offering lottery-based incentives like many other states are doing or embarking on a listening tour similar to what Gov. Asa Hutchinson is doing in Arkansas.
In addition, an Oklahoma Watch review found that Gov. Kevin Stitt publicly spoke or posted on social media about the benefits of vaccines far less frequently than governors, on both sides of the aisle, in neighboring states during recent months.
Drevets, however, said it’s now time for the state to “pull out all the stops” to better educate Oklahomans about the vaccines, talk about the risks of COVID-19 and fight back against misinformation.
“Whether it’s state government leadership or sports celebrities, and we have quite a sports celebrity culture here, we should be enlisting those folks to get the message out,” he said. “I think it’s time for everyone to be all hands on deck and try to better communicate that if you’re not vaccinated, you should get it done.”
Trevor Brown covered politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues for Oklahoma Watch. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc