ATLANTA — "Drawing Conclusions" follows a metro Atlanta mom on a fact-finding journey to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines. She has concerns about the speed the vaccines were developed, how they were approved and what she’s read online.
Her name is Joy Howard. 11Alive found four medical experts for her to interview on-camera. Joy conducted the interviews. She picked the questions.
As a medical caregiver to her live-in elderly mother, Joy qualifies to get the vaccine in the first round. But will she?
You can read more about what Joy learned, as well as watch the extended interviews with experts below. Joy finished the week of interviews with one important decision. Would she get the COVID-19 vaccine? Read to the bottom of this story to find out.
Part 1: Black Community Hesitancy
Joy Howard is a 40-year-old mother of two girls in Gwinnett County. Joy’s mom, Bettye, lives with her and her husband about half the year. For months, Joy was skeptical about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, but she’s willing to learn more.
In Part 1, Joy sat down with Dr. Jayne Morgan, a cardiologist who is also Piedmont Healthcare’s clinical director of its COVID-19 task force in Atlanta. She learned about the promising results involving the Black volunteers who were part of the vaccine trials; the vaccine effectiveness of virus mutations and the chances of getting infected after getting immunized.
Some of the participants cited the infamous, government-backed Tuskegee Syphilis study conducted in the 1930s.
The study enrolled 600 Black men, including 399 who had syphilis. The participants were tricked into believing they were getting free medical care but were instead just observed. Dozens died.
Dr. Morgan told Joy she got the vaccine herself a few weeks ago with little to no side effects. She explained the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine trials had a higher than average Black representation of volunteers with some promising results.
"The only subpopulation that had zero and I mean no incidences, no reports of a positive COVID infection was the Black population," Dr. Morgan said.
Part 2: Vaccine Safety and Children
Joy had a lot of questions about the science and research behind knowing if the vaccines are actually safe for adults and children.
To learn more about how COVID and the vaccine could impact children, Joy sat down with Dr. Lilly Cheng Immergluck, a pediatrician at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Dr. Immergluck wears a lot of hats at the medical school. She's a pediatric infectious disease specialist, a population health service researcher and the principal investigator for the school’s participation in the COVID prevention network.
“We’re actually thinking about doing pediatric studies in these vaccine trials because we recognize that the pediatric and adolescent population is a population that hasn't been factored in as far as trying to understand and raise the immunity against SARS-CoV-2," Dr. Immergluck said.
“So, if the children weren't a part of that population, was it part of the trial? Should they or will they be able to get the current vaccines," Joy questioned.
“So no. We start with adult, healthy adult population. And then once we determine that for adult healthy population, it works and it's effective and it seems like it's safe, then we move to other populations in the adult side," Dr. Immergluck explained.
A common question Joy asked all the experts was how safe the vaccine truly is. Joy wanted to know who ultimately made sure the vaccines were safe and how they know.
Dr. Henry Bernstein, a pediatrician in New York who sits on the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) had the answers for her. ACIP is a group of independent medical experts, not government employees, who reviewed all of the vaccine trial results and then recommended how the vaccines should be administered.
Dr. Bernstein explained the three COVID-19 vaccine trial phases. Phase one included a small handful of people, the first time the vaccine is tested in humans. Phase two involved testing the vaccine on a targeted population intended to help identify the most effective dosage. The final phase included providing the vaccine to thousands of volunteers to determine whether it's safe and effective.
“But, every one of those steps need to happen and did happen," Dr. Bernstein explained.
"It doesn't stop there. What's next after that is what we, the CDC and the FDA are closely monitoring the whole administration of the vaccine, the safety of the vaccine, how well the vaccines are doing what we expect that they will do based on those studies, and especially monitoring the side effects that might occur, associated with the vaccines," Dr. Bernstein said.
Part 3: Combatting Vaccine Disinformation
Surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines have been rumors and false claims everywhere online. Joy agrees it's hard to know what's real from what's fake.
In the last interview, Joy talked with Dr. Joe Smyser, a former CDC scientist who now runs an organization called Public Good Projects (PGP). It's a non-profit that specializes in combating public health disinformation online.
According to PGP’s own analysis, anti-vaccine crusaders have almost doubled their efforts since March, spreading COVID vaccine conspiracies that are shared millions of times a day.
Joy started off the interview with one of the most widely known claims out there about vaccines being tied to autism.
"There's been lots of studies funded by the U.S. government, but also done in universities and also done outside the U.S. by other groups, and no one has been able to find a link between vaccines and autism," Dr. Smyser explained.
Dr. Smyser went on to give context to how that claim even began, with British researcher Andrew Wakefield, who published a study in the 90's claiming there was a link.
"He was a medical doctor and he had his medical license removed because other scientists came in and said you made up your research," Dr. Smyser said.
Smyser went on to offer Joy some advice on how to sniff out the red flags online.
“If they're trying to make me feel something, it's probably not true. And if they're trying to get me to believe that there is a conspiracy or they're the only one who has seen the truth, then I feel like it's probably not true," Dr. Smyser stated.
Part 4: Joy Makes Her Decision
After interviewing four experts over four days, Joy revealed whether she would take the COVID-19 vaccine or pass.
11Alive went on this fact finding mission with Joy, not to persuade her one way or another. It was to find out, after learning about the science and getting all the information the skeptical mom was looking for, if it changed her mind about getting the vaccine.
Investigator Andy Pierrotti: “Joy, here we are. Back to where we started. Since then, I introduced you four experts - Dr. Morgan, Dr. Bernstein, Dr. Immergluck, and Dr. Smyser. Do you have a decision?”
Joy: "I think I do. I still have questions, but they won’t be answered. I just have to come to terms with that.”
Joy: “But, my guard has been let down by a few things that the experts and doctors presented. So, that outweighs the unknown for me.
So, my decision would be to get the vaccine.
Pierrotti: “Wow. What’s your why?”
Joy: “My why is because, I mean, I know more. I never learned or even cared to learn about vaccines prior to this. But, know that all of the eyes that were on it, all of the different committees that take a part in this, there wasn’t anything missing in the FDA emergency approval."
Pierrotti: “Like, they didn’t skip a step?”
Joy: "Yea, there were not shortcuts.”
The Gwinnett mom invited 11Alive along to her appointment where she and her mother received their first COVID-19 vaccine. Her mother is in the 65+ age group, and because Joy is her medical caregiver, she qualified to receive it as well.