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Berkeley Public Health Officer Responds to Vaccine Concerns

Dr. Lisa Hernandez shares her thoughts on hesitancy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, including safety concerns and race-related uncertainties.


The Jacket spoke with Doctor Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley public health officer, about concerns people may have about getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Hernandez works in the Berkeley Public Health Division to protect the health of Berkeley residents. Since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began in the U.S., her role has included informing the public on the vaccine and dispelling misinformation. The following is a transcript of the interview that has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you respond to those who are worried that we don’t know the long-term effect of these vaccines, or that not enough testing has been done to ensure safety?

I have heard that concern from lots of different people, including younger individuals. And one of the things that I had heard about that people have concerns about is, believe it or not, people’s fertility, and whether or not it will impact their ability to have kids. The other thing that I have heard as well is people worried about the fact that this is a new vaccine, and they feel like it has not been tested well. That is completely not true on both fronts.

One, this vaccine — even though it seems like it has been a quick turnaround and we had the vaccine out in less than a year — went through the same standards that every vaccine has to go through for safety standards with the Food and Drug Administration and also with review from the Center for Disease Control. And in fact, it actually had more review, especially here in the western part of the United States. There is a Western Committee that is comprised of three states: Oregon, Washington State, and California. They, a team of subject matter experts, came together to review the data and research on the vaccines, and then gave their approval on these vaccines before these three states were able to utilize the vaccine. This is something that does not happen with other vaccines, so this is a level of scrutiny that is extra for this vaccine.

The question about, let’s say fertility, while we did not study this vaccine on pregnant women [specifically], women that were in the study did get pregnant in the months that this was studied. When they compared women that were in the test group — the ones that got the vaccine, and then the ones that got the placebo, the fake vaccine — there was no difference in pregnancy outcomes. There was no increase in birth defects, no increase in miscarriages, no increase in problems getting pregnant. And the same thing with the men. Men did not have any problems conceiving if that is what they were hoping to do.

What would you say to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who may feel hesitant to get the vaccine because of harm the U.S. medical system has inflicted on BIPOC communities?

There is a historic part to, especially [in] the African American community, being taken advantage of, to be frank, by the scientific community and medical community. Whether it is from the Tuskegee Experiments, or the non-consensual use of cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks to create HeLa cells, that is a big deal. That said, I think we have done better, and are continuing to do better with making sure that all communities, especially communities of color, are respected when it comes to science and research.

The other piece of it is that these communities that have hesitancy, whether it is the African American community, the Latinx community, or the Asian Pacific Islander community — these are the communities that are actually dying the most or are getting the severity of complications. So we want them to have this vaccine that prevents severe illness and prevents death. I want to reassure individuals that we are doing better and need to continue to do better. However, they should get vaccinated because it is going to be extremely protective and life saving.

What are your thoughts on people relying on natural immunity, rather than getting vaccinated?

I think it is great to make sure that you are as healthy as can be, whether it is through exercise or through sleep, or healthy diet. Unfortunately, that is not enough. Vaccines have been tested and have been one of the strategies for keeping us protected from diseases and actually preventing cancer. Besides these COVID vaccines, one of the most recent vaccines that became available was the human papilloma vaccine, the HPV vaccine, and that basically prevents cancer. No level of healthy diet, or exercise, or sleep, or immune booster that you can take is going to prevent disease, especially cancer or some infectious disease on that level.

The other concept of getting exposed and having COVID to gain natural immunity is not a good solution either for a couple of reasons. One, if you get exposed to one virus, it is just that one virus. It does not necessarily protect you from all the other mutations and strains that are circulating. The second thing is that we do not know how you are going to respond to the virus. It could cause severe illness in you individually. But, it also puts other people at risk as well. You may be a young, healthy 17-year-old without any health problems. But, there are other family members and others you are going to expose [to the virus], that could get severely ill and even die. And that we have seen, so that is another risk that I would not recommend.