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Chicago doctors battle COVID vaccine misinformation: No, the shot won’t make you infertile, and other myths

It’s a race against time to get the vast majority of the population vaccinated and misinformation is causing hesitancy for getting shots.  

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered earlier this month at Richard J. Daley College.
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is administered earlier this year at Richard J. Daley College.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As an expert treating women with infertility, Dr. Eve Feinberg of Northwestern is asked often about the perceived risk of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“I have vaccine conversations every single day,” says Feinberg, who assures her patients that there is no evidence that the shots inhibit future pregnancy.

An infertility rumor started in Europe late last year has been refuted by multiple scientific studies, says Dr. Randy Morris, medical director of IVF1 fertility clinics in the suburbs. Morris conducted his own research to debunk the myth in a peer-reviewed study published in the spring.

“There is an abundance of evidence that it does not cause problems,” Morris says.

In fact, he points to other studies that show pregnant women infected with COVID can be at greater risk for death, hospitalization and serious complications, compared with women who are inoculated. Pregnant women across the country are landing in intensive care units, which is alarming, he adds.

“Nobody has ever seen pregnant women intubated in ICUs like we are now,” Morris says.

Docs: No impact on fertility despite ‘brilliant propaganda’ claiming otherwise

Despite these dire warnings, Morris, Feinberg and other doctors fight anti-vaccination propaganda daily that is drowning out scientific evidence.

Disproving it becomes difficult when emotions run strong, Feinberg says.

“It’s brilliant propaganda started by people who really understand how to tug at the heartstrings,” Feinberg says. “A woman’s desire for motherhood is one of the strongest biological drives.”

Infertility is among many misinformation campaigns against coronavirus vaccines. To rid the world of COVID-19, it’s necessary to have a vast majority of the population immune to the virus. Without high rates of immunity, the virus will continue to jump from person to person, potentially mutating and getting stronger. The now-dominant Delta variant, for instance, is far more contagious than previous versions of the virus and is spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated. Chicago residents are only about 60% vaccinated, far from being anywhere near the ideal scenario for herd immunity.

The disinformation campaign is driven by small but loud groups of anti-vaccination conspiracists, doctors say.

“Unfortunately, there are people with agendas and they want to play on people’s fears,” said Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center.

Here are answers to questions spurred by vaccine misinformation based on interviews with local experts, government guidelines and scientific studies. The myths are not supported by any scientific evidence.

Why am I told to take a vaccine that I hear is unsafe?

Mild, short-term flu-like symptoms can develop after a shot, but the alternative is COVID, which can cause long-term health effects, hospitalization and death.

“I tell patients, ‘There are millions of people who are vaccinated. Here are the effects, which are very minor,’” said Brittani James, a South Side family doctor and activist. “Then I say, ‘I want you to understand COVID is very serious.’”

Some communities of color in Chicago have the lowest vaccination rates in the city and the reluctance to get shots isn’t easily pinned to one rumor, and, rather, is a general distrust as to whether the shots are safe, James said. She practices in Englewood, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the city.

“People just don’t know what to trust,” says Dr. Brittani James, a doctor and activist in Englewood.

“People just don’t know what to trust,” James said. “They’re terrified. The vast majority of people don’t have access to a doctor or a trusted source of information.”

She asks her patients a series of questions about what they know or perceive of the shots as she tries to build a relationship of trust. “When you do it right, it’s very conversational,” she said. “The question is are you more afraid of the vaccine or COVID?”

There are much more specific misperceptions that have gained traction, such as:

How did the vaccines get developed so quickly and how can they be safe if they were rushed?

It’s true that vaccines and drugs can take a decade to be studied, scrutinized and ultimately approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The thorough reviews by the FDA are a model for the world. In fact, many countries automatically approve drugs and vaccines just based on an FDA approval.

Scientific research on viruses has been ongoing for decades, notably beginning 40 years ago with HIV and AIDS, for which there is still no vaccine. In more recent history, research on similar strains of coronavirus that struck Asia and the Middle East informed the technologies used to make the three vaccines being administered in the U.S. for COVID-19. One of those vaccines, the Pfizer shot, recently received full FDA approval after being OK’d for emergency use last year.

The other two vaccines, made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are still being used under the emergency designation, which previously was utilized for vaccines fighting viruses such as Ebola and Zika that didn’t emerge as substantial threats in the United States.

The early rapid spread of COVID-19 made scientists’ jobs easier to find plenty of patients to test.

“The disease was rampant,” said Dr. Alfredo Mena Lora, director of infectious disease at St. Anthony Hospital. “It sped up the results of the studies.”

FDA approval has already had an impact on policy decisions as local governments, schools and businesses have implemented vaccine mandates for employees, he noted.

If I take vitamins, can I ward off COVID without a vaccine?

Vitamins simply don’t protect like a vaccine, especially with the very contagious Delta variant. The vaccines help the body’s immune system recognize and stop the virus.

“It would be awesome if vitamins and easily accessed medications would work, but so far we don’t have those options,” Mena Lora said. “It’s the wrong choice. The right choice is to get vaccinated.”

I’ve been infected once. Don’t I have antibodies that will protect from becoming reinfected with the virus?

It’s true that being infected will result in antibodies that can potentially fight COVID but it’s not enough. You still need to get a vaccine.

Dr. Marina Del Rios says she recently treated a man at the University of Illinois at Chicago emergency room for COVID after he was infected a second time.

“It was his second bout of COVID and he had not been vaccinated,” Del Rios said. “I asked ‘Why did you not get vaccinated?’ He said, ‘I thought I had enough antibodies.’”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.